The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors earlier this month authorized the creation a veterans’ suicide review team to respond to “systemic concerns” related to suicidal behavior among veterans and recommend strategies to minimize the risk for suicidal behavior for veterans.
The board’s action, introduced by Supervisor Kathryn Barger, will also attempt to identify veteran deaths by suicide on an ongoing basis through data-sharing agreements with other county departments and government agencies.
“Most of us are aware of the statistic that, nationwide, an estimated 20 veterans a day die by suicide, but this data is only reflective of national trends and does not give localized data to ensure that we are targeting the most vulnerable populations within the community,” said Barger.
Jeff Stabile with the local nonprofit Santa Clarita Valley Veteran Services Collaborative, which refers veterans to a variety of resources, supported the county’s action.
“We got to collect the data,” he said. “I just hope that (the county has) resources available to put this together and collect the data to, first of all, define veteran and identify what’s going on, and the issues that veterans are facing.”
Stabile said he wants to offer more resources to veterans with mental health issues in the Santa Clarita Valley through the collaborative’s center in Newhall.
“We’re trying to get a therapist or doctor willing to work with us and we can refer people to them, so they can talk and they can better assess what they think this person needs,” said Stabile, putting a call out to the community for medical professionals to volunteer their time and skills at the center. “Then they can work with that person to start providing the longer-term services.”
Dr. Ijendu Korie, a psychiatrist at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, works with veterans, and recognizes that their training, mentality and lifestyle require a different approach than a civilian because of the unique circumstances and situations they encounter.
“They’re a complete different group,” Korie said, pointing to a “subculture” in the U.S. armed forces that places an emphasis on loyalty, teamwork, discipline and selflessness. “When I’m treating them, I have to have that mind shift.”
A variety of unique experience contribute to the mental health issues that veterans face. Korie has seen veterans’ traumas present as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, chronic pain, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse disorders, amputations, rehabilitation, reintegration and homelessness.
“All of this can actually correlate and actually worsen the rate of suicidality,” Korie said, noting that risk assessments are an important tool.
“We have resources for risk assessment, but we need to reach the veteran to do the risk assessment. The veteran has to know that there is support,” she said. “And then these people who are assessing these veterans also have to be well-trained so that we can deliver the right treatment to the veteran.”
Korie referred to this training as “professional sensitivity,” which she said needs to be joined with “community sensitivity,” too.
“So being educated and meeting veterans, at the very point of their needs on a case-by-case basis, is the work that we as a community have to do,” she said.
Veterans also have to be aware that the brain is just an organ that deserves treatment like any other part of the body, Korie said.
Renard Thomas, an Army veteran who served in Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan, helps veterans advance their education at College of the Canyons through the school’s Veterans Resource Center. While many veterans have mental health issues, Thomas said most have learned to use tools to help them manage.
“I think sometimes it’s easier for people to accept that our group is so dysfunctional, so distraught that they cannot be effective in life,” he said. “If (veterans) get connected to the right resources, that road is better than if (they) don’t connect to any resources to deal with (traumatic experiences).”
The SCV Veteran Services Collaborative can be reached at 661-753-3559. They are located at 23222 Lyons Ave. To learn more about COC’s Veterans Resource Center, visit canyons.edu/studentservices/va or call 661-362-3469.