Keith Lewis of the Salem VA talks suicide prevention

According to Keith Lewis, the Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center, “the power of 1” can make a huge difference in the life of a person who may be struggling. He also says most of the time, those considering suicide want help, but sometimes they just don’t know where to turn.

Sept. 7-11 is national Suicide Prevention Week, and one phone call, one question or one person reaching out to another can play a huge role in the prevention of suicide. According to Lewis, asking someone about suicide does not create suicidal thoughts, but rather gives them an opportunity to voice their thoughts or feelings.

“The body is designed for life,” said Lewis. “The body is designed to stay alive. Every biological drive we have is to stay alive. We can’t will our heart to stop beating. We’re going to keep fighting bacterial infections. Left to its natural devices, the body wants to stay alive. The act of suicide is going against every biological drive an individual has. The default is not suicide. The default is life. All we have to do is one tiny little thing, one tiny intervention.”

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, with 39,909 deaths per year among the population overall. Veterans have a higher rate of suicide than the average civilian. Twenty percent of U.S. deaths by suicide are veterans. This is often because veterans may feel displaced when they come home, that they are a burden, or have an acquired ability for self-harm.

“Often when service members leave the military, a sense of belonging is lost for many of them,” Lewis said. “It was such a close-knit community, and they felt like they had a place in the world. When you leave the military, quite often, individuals will enter into isolation, and it becomes a risk factor.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, signs of suicidal thinking include: hopelessness, anxiety, agitation, mood swings, sleeplessness, engaging in risky behavior, withdrawing from family and friends, rage or anger and feeling like there is no reason to live.

“The warning signs for suicide are the warning signs for untreated mental illness,” Lewis said.

Veteran specific risks include: frequent deployments, deployments to hostile environments, extreme stress, physical/sexual assault, length of deployment and service-related injury.

Those who are thinking about hurting or killing themselves, looking for ways to die, talking about death or participating in self-destructive behavior should seek immediate help.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs promotes the acronym S.A.V.E. to help recognize warning signs and prevent suicide. S.A.V.E. stands for:

S-signs of suicidal thinking should be recognized
A-ask the most important question of all (Are you thinking of suicide?)
V-validate the veterans experience
E-encourage treatment and expedite getting help

The Salem VA commemorated Suicide Prevention Week with a film screening and discussion of “Crisis Hotline Veterans Press 1,” which is a film about crisis center responders. The VA also hosted a panel style discussion about recovering from the grief and loss of losing a loved one to suicide in order to turn loss into hope and advocacy.

Veterans who are struggling should call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 ext. 1 for non-emergency situations, and 911 for emergencies. Other resources for those that wish to speak to someone about non-emergency situations include http://www.veteranscrisisline.net/ and texting 838255.

“We provide the follow up care when an individual calls the crisis line,” Lewis said of the VA. “We can expedite the process of helping someone from where they are to getting help really quickly. If they’re not enrolled or not eligible, we’ll still call them and get them connected to services in the community.”

To report a veteran who has attempted or may be at risk of suicide, contact Keith Lewis at (540) 982-2463 ext. 243.

“Reach out to someone,” Lewis said. “If it’s not us, than your friend, your military buddy, your parents, your spouse, your pastor. Reach out to someone. Anyone.”

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