More than 40,000 Americans die by suicide each year, with Veterans accounting for an estimated one in five of those deaths. Suicide is also a leading cause of death among active U.S. military members.
That’s why VA has made suicide prevention a top priority. Research is vital in shaping VA’s overall suicide prevention strategy, which covers medical treatment, provider training, community programs, crisis intervention procedures, and policy.
As director of the VA VISN 2 Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention, based in upstate New York at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center, I have an excellent perspective on what it takes to ensure that VA is consistently providing the best evidence-based life-saving interventions.
Research has identified numerous risk factors for suicidal behavior. These include behavioral health conditions, such as depression; major stressful events, such as the loss of a loved one; and physical health problems, such as chronic pain.
While each of these factors increases risk, none is necessary or sufficient on its own to lead to suicidal behavior. Rather, multiple factors are usually involved. Moreover, research shows that most of those who die by suicide were not in treatment for depression or other mental health conditions at the time of death. Therefore, tackling the complex and far-reaching problem of suicide requires a broad approach. At our Center of Excellence, where I lead a team of researchers, educators and administrators, that means:
- Identifying risk factors and protective factors for suicidal behavior in Veterans broadly and in key subgroups (for example, those with chronic pain).
- Developing, implementing and evaluating suicide-prevention interventions.
- Preparing junior researchers to contribute to the field of suicide research in a variety of ways.
- Providing education on suicide prevention.
Whether we are researchers, medical professionals, friends, families or Veterans, we are all on the front line of suicide prevention. People may not believe that they can make a difference in the lives of others, but they can. One person can help save a life.
In this series of four blog posts, which will be appearing here over the next month, I hope to convey that while suicide is complex, and unfortunately cannot be prevented entirely, we can make great progress by using a well-informed and comprehensive approach.
If you or someone you know is in crisis reach out and call 1-800-273-8255, Veterans and Servicemembers press 1. You can also chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net, or send a text message to 838255. Confidential support from caring VA responders is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
About the author: Kenneth R. Conner, PsyD, MPH, directs the VA VISN 2 Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention. He also co-directs the Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center, where he is a professor in psychiatry.