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Young Ore. Vets Commit Suicide 8 Times More Than Civillian Peers

Tuesday, October 07, 2014


Honoring soldiers

Photo credit: The U.S. Army on Flickr

Male veterans ages 18 through 24 in Oregon had a rate of suicide eight times higher than citizens their age, according to a recent state health report.

A study done by the Oregon Violent Death Reporting System, Oregon Health Authority, and the Public Health Division showed that suicide was the leading cause of death for Oregon veterans under 45 years old. Suicide-prevention programs for veterans have been a focus of state government since last year.

“We spend six months training military recruits to prepare them for deployment and we only spend six days preparing them to re-enter civilian life,” said a 2013 Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs report to Gov. John Kitzhaber.

Young People More Affected.  
Aimee Johnson, suicide-prevention coordinator for the Portland Veterans Affairs Center, said there are theories but no evidence explaining the trend of suicides among young veterans. She thinks young people have natural feelings of disconnection that can be compounded by military service and that accessing a means to kill oneself can sometimes be easier than seeking out mental health care. 

“There is a mix of people who feel like they don’t belong,” Johnson said. “They could have a lot of emotional stress, are not reaching out for help, and there is easier access for lethal means.”

Mental health problems are the leading cause of veteran suicides. Yet only one in five veterans observed received treatment for a mental health problem.

Many are afraid to reach out for help because of the social stigma associated with mental illness, Johnson said, adding that the VA has several resources to help troubled veterans who do. 

“Looking back at the timeline [of suicide victims], there were opportunities to get them help,"  Johnson said. "Calling earlier is one way to help.”

The center offers a 24-7 hotline (1-800-273-8255, press 1), a website where veterans can go online and chat with trained VA -responders, or option to text (838255). Johnson said the texting and online chatting option are popular among younger veterans. 

Another local resource is the Returning Veterans’ Project. They have 160 practitioners, mostly in mental health. The nonprofit organization offers free health services to help all categories of veterans and service members in Portland and surrounding areas. 

Belle Landau, the executive director, said the organization sees veterans struggling with unemployment, before and after deployment, as well as untreated trauma from the past adding to present trauma. 

Ninety-one veterans committed suicide in Multnomah County and 79 in Washington County between 2008 and 2012, the highest in Oregon for the total number of deaths.

In 2013, bills were introduced to the Oregon Legislature that focused on helping veterans readjust to civilian life. One in particular directed the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs to create and coordinate a public campaign focusing on suicide prevention for veterans.

Johnson said she thinks the Oregon VA has helped raise awareness, both with veterans and the community. Her organization has received more calls, and that there have been more jobs, more volunteer options or community resources to assist veterans since the state program took effect.

 “There is a vested interest here,” Johnson said. “Veteran suicides are a problem and we all have to help.”


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