How to Address the Veteran Suicide Crisis: Fight the Stigma & Detect Risk Earlier

Bridging the Gap is an interview series featuring leading minds in healthcare innovation. The latest episode features Dr. Caitlin Thompson, Vice President at consulting firm Red Duke Strategies, and former National Director of Suicide Prevention at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. She joined host, NeuroFlow CEO, and Army Veteran Chris Molaro to discuss how suicide prevention initiatives have evolved at the VA and shared promising strategies to intervene upstream in order to prevent self-harm.

If you are a Veteran in crisis, there are several resources available to you including the Veterans Crisis Line and free emergency crisis care at VA and non-VA clinics. You don’t have to be enrolled in VA benefits or health care to access these services. You are not alone.

To learn more about Dr. Thompson’s work supporting the behavioral health of Veterans and service members, listen and watch the interview below and read on for top sound bites.

On the importance of being direct when addressing suicide risk:

There are so many myths about asking people about suicide. There’s this idea that if I ask somebody about killing themselves, then I’m going to put it in their head, and they’re going to go home and kill themselves. And there’s research that shows the opposite. Opening up that conversation allows those people to more freely talk about how they’re feeling and, in a way, you’re showing you’re not scared of this. Even by saying, “Are you thinking of hurting yourself,” it’s almost showing you’re a little scared to ask what the real question is, which is, “Listen I’m worried about you. Have you been thinking about taking your life, have you been thinking about killing yourself.” 

Another thing that I always encourage organizations to do is have a lunch-and-learn every couple of months and practice using that language with your colleagues. Then when the time comes, it becomes a more easy thing to ask, or more natural thing to ask. People who are suicidal and want to talk about how their feeling will be able to open up so much more.

On the value of moving upstream to identify suicide risk:

One thing that I love about what you all do at NeuroFlow, and what other organizations are doing, is getting to people faster. So even if people are just thinking about [suicide], getting upstream—getting to the point before they are in crisis, getting to the point before they are so depressed that they attempt suicide—is so critical.

Why Veterans are 1.5X more likely to die by suicide than non-veteran populations:

We know that there is never just one reason why someone is thinking about suicide. There is data out there showing that substance use in Veterans can be higher and can contribute to suicidal thoughts. Another huge, huge thing is firearms and guns.

That’s another step the VA is taking beautifully in a way that I was not able to when I was there seven years ago. We weren’t allowed to talk about guns because of the concern about the political ramifications of it. . . But we had to talk about it. The number of Veterans who own guns is far greater than non-veterans, and it’s the number one cause of Veteran suicide. . . The VA is doing a wonderful job with their messaging around this. There’s gun locks available. No one is trying to take away guns unless someone is in crisis, and they’re only taken until the situation stabilizes.

Learn more about Dr. Caitlin Thompson and Red Duke Strategies, a consulting firm at the intersection of industry and the federal government.

Ellen Harvey is the Senior Content Marketing Manager at NeuroFlow. She has over nine years of experience writing about technology and innovation for business leaders. At NeuroFlow, she writes about prominent trends in behavioral health and illustrates how NeuroFlow's technology helps healthcare, payor, and government organizations improve the well-being of their constituents.

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