Annual symposium for Arizona military members & families highlights veteran suicide prevention

Suicide prevention was a key focus of the Arizona Coalition for
Military Families’ 14th Annual Statewide Symposium held in Phoenix on
April 17 and 18. The symposium brought together military, government and
community resources to focus on strengthening services and support for
the half-million veterans who live in Arizona and their families.

In 2021, 6,392 veterans were among the 46,412 suicides among U.S.
adults, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Between the
years 2015 and 2019, veteran suicides accounted for 20.6% of the
suicides in Arizona.

“Most of us who are here at the symposium have been touched by that
experience, and it is tragic on all levels,” said Thomas Winkel,
director of the Arizona Coalition for Military Families. “It has a
ripple effect across generations. It impacts us not just for days,
weeks, months, but years and decades.”

“Anything that we can do to stop it, even one, is a worthy effort.”

One veteran who participated in a breakout room discussion on veteran
suicide prevention was Marine Corps Staff Sgt. LaDarrin Morris. Morris
joined the Marines in 2009 at age 17 and served for 10 years before
being honorably discharged in 2019. He now works as an employment
counselor in the disabled veterans outreach program for the Arizona
Department of Economic Security.

Morris was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in
2020 after experiencing episodes of sadness toward the end of his
service. He said he first sought treatment because his wife – his
girlfriend at the time, who was a social worker housing homeless
veterans – recognized his mental health struggles and recommended he
seek help.

Not only did Morris have to deal with suicidal thoughts due to his
PTSD, but one of his friends who also served in the Marine Corps took
his own life.

One of the speakers on veteran suicide prevention was Natalie Bui, a
supervisory social worker for the VA. Bui, who oversees community
engagement and partnerships for suicide prevention, led a discussion on
the department’s suicide prevention 2.0 model. The Veterans Health
Administration (VA) identified suicide as the 13th-leading cause of
death for veterans in 2021.

After telling participants about this and other statistics, Bui
described resources available for veterans struggling with suicidal
ideation, referring to them as “anchors of hope.” One of the anchors is
the utilization of VA’s services.

“We have seen numbers that if you are engaged with the VA, receiving
services in any capacity, receiving benefits in any capacity, your risk
factors for suicide significantly decrease,” Bui said.

Other anchors Bui mentioned included social programs such as Be
Connected, a social program that connects veterans and families to
support services; programs that help veterans through transitional
periods; and efforts to limit access to lethal weapons for veterans
suffering from suicidal thoughts.

Other speakers at the symposium who discussed suicide prevention
included Brock Pennington, a community liaison at El Dorado Springs
Behavioral Health; Brandon Maloney, program director for Reach for It of
Tucson; and Cynthia Olórtegui, a regional account manager for Veterans
Services at Universal Health Services.

“We recognize that suicide is not just preventable, but the real way
that we’re going to address it is if we take the clinical, the
community, marry them together, and we work on pushing … those efforts
out together,” Bui said about the VA’s current prevention strategy.

That strategy has three priorities: identifying and screening service
members, veterans, and their families for suicide risk; promoting
connectedness and improving care transitions; and increasing safety
regulations regarding access to lethal means, according to Bui.

Another breakout session of the symposium discussed “postvention,”
which is the support given to friends and family members of veterans who
lost their lives to suicide.

Morris suffered guilt from not recognizing that his friend needed
help: “My friend is not doing well and he’s trying to reach out to me.
No, I got kind of absorbed in myself.”

According to Claire Piazza-Gabriellini, a suicide prevention
coordinator for the Phoenix VA, losing a loved one to suicide can make a
person start to isolate and suffer from depression themselves, which
are suicide warning signs to look out for.

A common resource for people who have lost loved ones to suicide is support groups.

“The main part of our Survivors of Suicide program is having support
groups. However, they are peer support groups,” said Stefanie Cary, La
Frontera Empact Suicide Prevention Center crisis transition navigator
for the Comprehensive Community Health Program. “We have about 30
volunteers who have lost loved ones to suicide.”

La Frontera Empact Suicide Prevention Center uses these support
groups and events such as the Jeremiah Walk and a World Suicide
Prevention Day candlelight ceremony, to help people who have lost
someone to suicide.

Morris said he wished he, and other struggling veterans like his
friend, knew about all the resources earlier. “It’s so many resources
that I genuinely did not know existed,” Morris said.

“I wish they did because I would have told my friends to go, I would
have went, and these problems that we were having would have been fixed a
long time ago.”