Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 10, 2013

Risk of suicide is high among W.Va. veterans

By Mannix Porterfield
For the Daily Telegraph

CHARLESTON — One-fifth of West Virginia veterans filling out a special legislative survey last fall are at “a significant risk” to commit suicide, dating from World War II to the 21st century brush fires in the Middle East.

That was among multiple findings unwrapped Tuesday by a West Virginia University researcher before the Select Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Moreover, about half of the 1,200 veterans taking part in the lengthy questionnaire indicated they suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Afterward, a committee co-chair, Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, suggested the 2013 session could take up some legislation, and if not, could strive toward funding some efforts to get troubled veterans diagnosed and treated.

Dr. Joseph Scotti of WVU, who worked with Atlas Research in tasking the survey as a follow-up to one undertaken in 2008, said the risk of suicide tends to drop off among older veterans.

The results show that 20 percent of all veterans think and “seriously” want to take their lives.

“This 20 percent is fairly significant,” he said, emphasizing it cuts across all age groups, even WWII veterans living in advanced age.

“Life doesn’t just get better because you got older,” he told the committee.

Scotti outlined a number of recommendations, including a call for a public service campaign to make the public in general, and health care providers in particular, aware of the symptoms for at-risk veterans.

Typically, doctors fail to detect signs of suicide by not asking if a patient is a veteran and following up with pertinent questions.

“They miss a really good chance to catch people who are depressed and potentially suicidal,” he said.

Another point made in the survey was that 10 percent of those responding have been homeless at some point, and 3 percent were on the street within the past five years.

“And a disproportionate number of homeless veterans are women with children,” Scotti said.

The WVU official called for more mental health services targeting veterans.

“The Veterans Administration if expanding, but they can’t keep up,” he said.

Overall, there are some 170,000 veterans in West Virginia, meaning the 20 percent with suicidal tendencies, and 50 percent with PTSD and depression, if the survey results are a true microcosm. “That’s a lot,” he said.

Scotti suggested that health care providers dig deep down into the roots of suicidal veterans and those with PTSD and depression, rather than merely treating symptoms.

“We need a strong focus on talking about what happened to you, versus, ‘we’ll just medicate you, we’ll help you deal with your anger, let’s help with the sleep problem,’ and not touching the trauma that’s underneath all of that,” he said.

Fleischauer said the survey results show the state is facing some “pretty large mental health risks” and lawmakers must come to terms on dealing with them.

“It’s very alarming, and something that we need to take very, very seriously,” the lawmaker said.

“I think all of us need to know if someone like that is close to us and what is the best way to handle it.”

Fleischauer said a wide range of professionals — doctors, school teachers and the clergy — need to get involved.

“This needs to be part of regular medical exams by health providers,” she said.

While specific legislation might not surface in the ensuing months, Fleischauer said some tweaking of funding mechanisms could be in order to help veterans.

“We’re all going to have to be sort of scratching our heads and scurrying around to see what we can do,” she said.

“There is a lot of stuff here that may or may not be legislation, or may or many not be funding, but we as a society, who are grateful for the sacrifices, ought to do.”

Scotti agreed with another panelist, Delegate Tom Azinger, R-Wood, that the survey could be skewed to some extent by the hostilities some Vietnam returnees suffered.

“They were treated horribly,” Azinger said.

Their returns, as individuals in a divided nation, were in “a bad atmosphere” and in marked contrast to WWII troops coming home in units to victory celebrations, Scotti told Azinger.

Scotti agreed to return to the committee as often as possible to plow further into the survey, adding there some 12 million data points contained in it.