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Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center


September is Suicide Prevention Month

Person places hand on the shoulder of somber-looking Servicemember

September is Suicide Prevention Month in the United States. Charleston VAMC works diligently to spread awareness about the signs of suicide and provide resources to save lives year-round.

By Lanelle W. Strawder, MA, Public Affairs Specialist
Tuesday, September 6, 2016


The widely publicized number is on the tongue of activists and celebrities, and splashed across the social media timelines of users across the country. It's the number of former Servicemembers that commit suicide every day in the United States according to the VA's 2012 Suicide Data Report.

However, recently--thankfully--the number has decreased. According to a new report released in August 2016, the number of Veterans committing suicide has decreased to 20 per day. While it's encouraging that fewer Veterans are taking their own lives, the number is still far too high.

Each September, Suicide Prevention Month is recognized in the United States to help raise awareness, offer support, fund research and call for action in regard to advancing a national response to the problem of suicide. For VA, suicide prevention is a year-round effort to provide Veterans with the resources and support needed to save the lives. 

According to data from 2014, Veterans account for 18 percent suicides in the United States. Life challenges, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, financial troubles, and job loss, make Veterans particularly susceptible to suicidal ideation. That's why it's important to help Veterans get care through VA. Recent reports show that Veterans who enrolled in VA health care have experienced a 16.1 percent decrease in the rate of suicide, compared with the national rate of suicide in the U.S., which is increasing overall (27.3 percent).

Dr. Mark De Santis,  a neuropsychologist and the Suicide Prevention Coordinator at Charleston VAMC, leads the medical center's efforts to help Veterans in crisis and believes building relationships with Veterans is key to preventing loss of life.

"Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in this country. Being there for anyone, including an unfamiliar person, may prove to be compelling enough to alter a person's life," De Santis explains. "Individuals who have survived a suicide attempt have stated that they wished someone would have shown interest. Giving empathy, support and encouragement while possibly assisting them to seek professional help may provide enough of a foundation to promote a positive transformation in the direction of their life."

De Santis has implemented a number of initiatives to continue VA's mission decrease the number of suicides among Veterans. Several years ago, he was instrumental in establishing the Health & Suicide Awareness Expo that occurs annually in Charleston.

More recently, De Santis began the important work of building collaborative partnerships with community agencies to address mental health among Veterans. He regularly works with front line medical providers, law enforcement and military personnel in communities Charleston VA serves givingl talks, and providing materials and training on how to recognize suicidal behaviors in Veterans and implement de-escalation tactics.

On the front lines

Though many Veterans may not show signs that they intend to harm themselves before doing so, certain actions can be a sign that a Veteran needs help. Appearing sad or depressed most of the time; withdrawing from friends, family, and society, or sleeping more often than normal; and even acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities can all be subtle signs that something is wrong. (Learn more about identifying the signs of crisis.)

Mental Health Service Medical Support Assistant Sharon Knowles knows these signs all too well; she touts the importance of recognizing them and taking them seriously whenever coming in contact with a Veteran who may be experience them. She is dedicated to making sure that each Veteran who walks through our VA's doors gets the support they need and notes how important it is to put those Veterans in contact with Charleston VA's mental health professionals. 

Knowles explains, "As soon as you put them in contact with us, it triggers a connected series of events designed to treat a very complex psychiatric problem. We immediately begin to wrap that Veteran in the services they need."

Stress and anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress and alcohol or drug problems can all be signs of crisis. Counseling, treatment and customized support for dealing with suicidal thoughts and self-destructive behavior are all available for Veterans at Charleston VAMC. 

However, sometimes Veterans who need help may not think to come to VA. Part of Katrina Howard's job is making sure that no Veteran outside of these walls are left behind.

Howard is a suicide prevention social worker at Charleston VA and spends a good bit of time out in the community at outreach events promoting mental health awareness. But more often she's handling the many referrals that come to the medical center from the Veterans Crisis Line.

"I talk to Veterans all day and my goal is to help every person I can. When they're talking to me about their innermost feelings and emotions during a time when they're in distress and despair, that's an opportunity for us to help them deal with the internal conflicts that might be driving their negative thoughts."

Each time Howard gets a referral, she makes it a point to follow up with each patient, making sure they get linked to the VA services they need. This may span from getting them enrolled in VA care to connecting them with a psychologist or psychiatrist who can begin working with them immediately.

"Just knowing that out of the hundreds of call we get," Howard says, "I may be able to touch or help one person. That's very satisfying--knowing these Veterans trust me to get them the help they need."

Confidential support through the Veterans Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year by dialing 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1), via online chat, or by text (838255). Resources and information can also be accessed any time online.


Charleston VAMC is participating in the following events as part of Suicide Prevention Month.

  • Veteran Health Fair - September 1, Charleston VAMC Main Auditorium
  • Mental Health Summit - Friday, September 9, 8 a.m. - 12 p.m., Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center (CDMHC), by invitation only
  • Suicide Prevention Symposium - September 9, Fort Stewart, Columbia
  • 8th Annual Mental Health & Suicide Awareness Expo - September 10, 9 a.m. - 2 p.m., Marion Square Park, Charleston
  • Out of Darkness Community Walk - October 16, 1 p.m., Hampton Park, Charleston


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