State Leaders Concerned Over Veteran Suicide Rate

Friday, July 18th 2014, 8:34 pm
By: News 9

More than 600 Oklahomans committed suicide last year, making suicide the number one cause of violent death in the state. 

What is, perhaps, even more disturbing is the fact that a quarter of those taking their lives were veterans.

This is, and has been, a serious concern for the state's military and mental health leaders going back many years.

"I think that we've actually used the term 'epidemic,'" said Maj. Gen. (ret'd) Rita Aragon. "It's so pervasive, and it's happening so frequently."

For Aragon and others, a real wake-up call came in 2008, a time when the U.S. had troops still engaged in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It was that year when suicide deaths among military men and women first exceeded combat deaths. It hasn't changed since.

"When soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines started doing three, four and five different missions, they came back progressively more ill," Aragon said.

Gen. Aragon, Oklahoma's Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs, said there is much society can do to help these heroes, and it begins with making the public more aware of what they have been through during their deployments.

Aragon said another key is government, at all levels, doing a better job of connecting returning soldiers with the help they need. Even if it's just talking with another veteran.

"All of those veterans organizations have people who have been there, who have done it and they're really willing and ready to sit down and talk," Aragon said.

Oklahoma mental health officials say a big part of the problem is the diminishing funding for mental health and substance abuse services.

7/17/2014 Related Story: The Suicide Epidemic Among US Soldiers

Terri White, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said they currently have the resources to reach a third of the Oklahomans who are struggling with mental illness and drug abuse.

"That means that two-thirds of Oklahomans are going without help," said White. "That includes men and women who've been part of the National Guard or who've served in the armed forces."

Beyond the issue of resources to treat the conditions that afflict returning soldiers is the issue of the stigma that is still, too often, attached to getting that treatment.

"It's really been one of those things that--dadgum if you do and darned if you don't," said Gen. Aragon. "We really need to make it more acceptable."

State lawmakers didn't help matters this past session, when they considered legislation aimed at providing new homes for two state agencies that are both badly needing new homes.

"The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services was happy to be a tenant in the Department of Veterans Affairs' proposed new building," said Commissioner White. "Unfortunately, while we had many men and women from the Armed Forces who were excited about this possibility and this synergy, we had a couple of folks who, because of that stigma around mental health and substance abuse, weren't sure they wanted to share a building with [us]."

Both Aragon and White said if we don't do a better job of erasing the stigma, and the state doesn't dedicate more resources and funding to solving this problem, we will just see more veterans thrown in jail for self-medicating and more who decide to end their pain permanently.