WCAX Investigates: Suicides after Service - Pt. 2

Published: Apr. 13, 2023 at 6:47 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 13, 2023 at 8:19 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A startling number of veterans die by suicide every day in the U.S. The VA estimates the number to be around 17 daily. But allegations in Operation Deep Dive, an extensive study by America’s Warrior Partnership, estimate the amount could be double that, something the VA denies. In part 2 of his special report, Darren Perron looked at what’s being done to stop veteran suicides and the losing battle in finding adequate mental health care.

Susan Sweetser has a room full of keepsakes from her daughter, Ginny, inside her Essex home. And three years after her daughter took her own life, Sweetser keeps her daughter close to her heart -- a pendant containing Ginny’s ashes. “The pain that’s left when somebody dies by suicide -- it’s there for the rest of our lives,” Sweetser said.

Army Sgt. Ginny Sweetser deployed to Iraq in 2003 as part of the Global War on Terror. She spent more than a year under constant attack, driving military vehicles through insurgent hot spots.

She survived but lost the battle to stay alive after she returned home. Ginny’s struggle with suicidal ideation began right after she returned from deployment. She made a TikTok video alongside another soldier to raise awareness about the difficulties veterans face. The hashtag #IGY6 stands for “I’ve got your back” -- to let other vets know they’re not alone. But shortly after posting the video in 2020, at 39 years old, her mother says she took her gun and shot herself. “After 15 years of struggling, Ginny was gone,” Sweetser said. “Our lives will never be whole again without her.”

Ginny suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder before her death. “That long-term exposure is a definite risk factor for developing PTSD,” said Dr. Paula Schnerr, who leads the National Center for PTSD in White River Junction. The center’s research guides Veterans Affairs on its clinical care for vets nationwide. Schnerr says six percent of the general population will suffer some form of PTSD following traumatic experiences. That number jumps to nearly 20% for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“One of the key factors is life threat -- being afraid for your life or somebody else’s life -- being severely injured, witnessing that, witnessing severe atrocities,” Schnerr said. She says PTSD increases the risk of suicide. But research that began in the 1980s here is helping doctors diagnose and treat it. “We can now give people a message of hope -- it’s not a life sentence. If you have PTSD there’s a range of treatments that can be effective.”

“I don’t think we have enough providers for brain health in Vermont,” said Vermont National Guard Commander Major General Greg Knight. He says many vets have no place to turn to get help. “That’s immensely frustrating for us to know. I can encourage people to get the resources they need and we may not have them to give.”

He points to low-reimbursement rates from TRICARE, the health insurance provided to vets by the government as the reason many psychologists and psychiatrists won’t take vets as patients -- and there’s a shortage of psychologists to begin with. Knight is part of a group of adjutant generals nationwide working to improve access to mental health treatment and to reduce suicides. “It’s been rough. I’ve seen too much of it in my career,” he said.

Brooke Whalen, the VA’s suicide prevention coordinator, says suicide prevention became the VA’s top priority in 2018.

Reporter Darren Perron: Are there enough providers to help our veterans deal with mental health issues?

Brooke Whalen: The VA is doing everything they can to make sure that veterans are able to receive the type of services they need in a time of crisis.

She says the VA now offers universal screenings for depression and suicide at all health care clinics when vets come to appointments and that immediate crisis care is offered at the White River Junction VA. “We are integrating mental health into primary care,” Whalen said. “We also have same-day mental health services here at White River Junction.”

The VA also launched an outreach program to find vets who may not know of the services available to them. Peer support and group therapy are offered. Every VA employee is now trained to identify a veteran at risk of suicide, from medical staff to maintenance workers.

“Veterans will often isolate,” said Jennifer Stark, a recreation therapist who helped to pioneer the new type of therapy offered at the White River Junction VA. “We do everything from adaptive kayaking to snowshoeing to golf to biking.”

Stark says getting vets out of their homes and in the company of others dealing with the same struggles is the first step. “It gives them a sense of purpose, it gives them a sense of belonging and helps them work on social skills they no longer have or feel comfortable with,” she said.

“There’s no shame in finding somebody and asking for help,” Gen. Knight said. He calls the White River Junction VA the best in the nation. Still, he’s lost 18 soldiers and airmen to suicide since 2007, and that number could be higher. Those who no longer get VA services, those no longer with the guard are harder to track. The biggest hurdle in getting vets help, he says, is getting past the stigma that surrounds mental health care. “If you have a physical injury, you get treated -- physical therapy, surgery. If you’ve got high blood pressure, we’ll treat that. That’s not stigmatized. But for some reason, brain health is -- that doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“It was so hard to say goodbye to her,” Susan Sweetser said of her daughter. Ginny struggled to get the help she needed, and despite the VA’s claim that it continues to improve mental health care, Sweetser says it’s not enough, not until suicides after service stop.

Her forearm bears the message she wants other vets to know -- the tattoo “IGY6″ -- I’ve got your back. “If there is anyone out there who is thinking that ending their life would be the better decision, I’m just telling you, it’s not. Don’t leave. Stay with us,” she said.

The VA says they’ve made significant improvements in identifying vets at risk of taking their own lives and they are calling on Congress and the White House to make more money available for community outreach.

If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or text VT to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line. If you’re a veteran in crisis or concerned about one, contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive 24/7 confidential support. Dial 988 then press 1, or text 838-255.

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