The American Legion was formed in 1919 to assist those veterans returning from World War I as they transitioned back into the civilian life. Decades later, the Legion was instrumental in the drafting and passage of what is commonly referred to as the GI Bill.
But now, as veteran suicides continue to happen at a rate of 17 or so a day, the Legion is now focused on the prevention of those, starting with at least one a day.
That was the message delivered by American Legion Chief Marketing Officer Dean Kessel to the Legion’s TBI/PTSD Suicide Prevention Committee Aug. 26 during the organization’s national convention in Milwaukee. Kessel briefed the committee on the Legion’s “Be the One” effort, which was launched last April and has incorporated the Legion’s relationship with Chip Ganassi Racing and the INDYCAR Series.
“This is the biggest thing that The American Legion is doing right now,” Kessel said. “The biggest issue facing (post-9/11 veterans) is mental health and suicide. With ‘Be the One,’ I even hate to use the word campaign, because this is something that’s going to be for the next decade or so.”
Kessel explained the three pillars of “Be the One”:
· Destigmatize asking for help. “To say ‘It’s OK to not be OK.’ It’s OK to ask for help.
· Collaborating to create some digital therapeutics about to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
· Education and peer-to-peer support and what the Legion can do with that. “One of the things we’re looking at is how do we create a heat map for the United States where you go to the state of North Carolina, I click on Durham, and I have all the resources right there in Durham at my fingertips,” Kessel said. “That’s what I think we need to do. Drill it down to as locally as possible.”
“The DNA of The American Legion is solving the biggest problems facing veterans,” Kessel said. “That’s just who we are.”
Kessel said Legionnaires don’t have to be trained counselors in order to turn the tide of veteran suicides. “I’ve heard it multiple times: ‘We’re not mental health experts. But we are damn good about putting the right people around the table to solve a problem,’” he said. “(The TBI-PTSD Committee) has the ear of the White House. The ear of Congress, DoD, VA, those critical stakeholders to get legislation and policy and those type of things passed.”
The committee also heard from Alexander Silver, Military and Veteran Outreach Chair for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and currently serving as a technical sergeant in the U.S. Air Force.
Silver, who is in charge of the Mental Health Clinic, 316th Medical Squadron, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C., spoke on behalf of AFSP. It was founded in 1987 and is a voluntary health organization that gives those affected by suicide a nationwide community empowered by research, education and advocacy to take action against suicide. The organization is headquartered in New York but has local chapters in 50 states.
“There is no one single solution,” Silver told the committee. “We say, ‘Fight suicide’. That doesn’t mean anything until we say ‘how, and at what level?’ Only two in five people with a mental health condition seek treatment. Is that something we can just throw money at? Absolutely not. The thing we have to do (is) to build a culture where we’re all accepting of mental health as a health issue.”
Silver compared suicide to a heart attack, something that is “not our fault, but preventable. Are heart attacks preventable? Absolutely. Are heart attacks our fault? No. Can we spot the signs of a heart attack? Yes. Looking at wounds we can’t necessarily see … are still a health issue. Treating them is still a health issue. Fighting suicide is still a public health issue on every level.”
Trying to tie thoughts of suicide to one cause is a mistake. “It’s things that are going on in someone’s life – biologically, psychologically, in their social situation, in their history, sometimes in their genetics – that go on behind the scenes that increase someone’s risk broadly,” Silver said. “When somebody has something going on in their life and we know that this person has all of these types of factors, that’s how we understand the risk, and don’t look at it as a single reaction to a single issue.”
Silver encouraged looking and listening for signs from those pondering taking their own lives. “We cannot have a suicide without hopelessness,” he said. “When (talking to them), look at how they’re talking. How they’re behaving. What their mood is. Listening for hopelessness. Those kinds of words in that conversation, like, ‘This is never going to get better. I’m always going to feel this way.’ The biggest thing is to have a conversation with somebody.”
He also cautioned against having an emotional response during that conversation.
“When we’re talking to somebody that we love, we’re feeling outraged that they would even consider taking themselves away from us,” Silver said. “That’s the time when we’re going to tell them, ‘How dare you even think about this.’ The biggest thing to learn to do is how to listen without being judgmental. If somebody is talking to you about being suicidal, they could have picked anybody. Our job is not to make them justify how they feel. It’s not to let them know how selfish they would be. It’s not to tell them that we’re going to solve their problems for them, and everything is going to be better. Our job is just to listen and get them to help.
“Always treat it as if you are the only person in the world who knows what’s going on. And remember in that moment, and I hope it never does, this is how the conversation ends: They have to get help. It’s not just encouraging them. Do more than encourage. If you think they may make an attempt soon, please stay with them.”