KILLEEN — September is National Suicide Prevention Month. While suicide awareness is a national topic, it is even more significant to address the approach inside the military.
“Our veteran population is 22 percent more at risk to commit suicide and that is alarming,” said Dr. Iman Williams Christians, clinic director at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Endeavors. “We started the campaign 22 actions to bring awareness to suicide over the course of the month.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of 20 veterans succumbed to suicide every day, including active-duty service members, guardsmen and reservists.
The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Endeavors provides mental health care services for veterans and military families regardless of their discharge status or ability to pay.
“We are all about reducing barriers for people who are coming through our door,” Williams Christians said. “If you are having trouble with child care, we provide that for free; if you are having trouble with transportation, we send you an Uber.”
Endeavors is located at 1103 W. Stan Schlueter Loop in Killeen. Walk-ins are welcome and no referrals needed.
Williams Christians knows the stigma is great in the military, which is the reason a lot of veterans don’t want to seek help.
“There is this mentality from people who are in the military to show no weakness, and admitting to need help is a sign of weakness,” she said.
But the military is changing after realizing taking care of their soldiers’ mental health is an important part of their medical well-being, even during their active duty career.
“Now they try to get you some short-term therapy to try to get you back into the line, and that is so much better for the individual than sending them home,” Williams Christians said.
However, veteran suicides remain a reality. The latest report of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs states that veterans’ suicides account for 18 percent of the suicide deaths in the country, although they only make up 8.5 percent of the adult population.
Reasons for the high suicide rate can be difficulties adjusting to civilian life, reintegrating into their family unit after a deployment and simply the aftermath of an actual deployment.
Endeavors outreach director Ovi Rivera served in the military for 22 years and retired as a master sergeant from the U.S. Army.
He knows to start a career after the military can be stressful and mentally challenging.
“We do a lot of things civilians do — we do tons of stuff that we can use outside the military — we just don’t know how to translate these skills,” he said.
The transition is especially hard for veterans who don’t retire, but simply get out.
“All of a sudden you go from being taken care of in terms of money, a place to live and medical insurance … to being on your own,” he said. “It’s extremely hard, and if you can’t do that transition you go into depression really fast.”
Rivera urges soldiers to take advantage of their educational benefits while serving.
“Everybody out here will ask you what kind of education you have,” he said.
Reintegrating into a civilian community can be difficult and stressful for many veterans who have been used to a different system for most of their life, but it is possible with the right precautions and preparations.
Rivera also encouraged soldiers to seek help during their careers if needed.
“I sought help in 2010 after all my deployments,” he said. “I was in a very dark place and I didn’t care I was a senior (noncommissioned officer), I just wanted to see someone and it helped me.”
Dealing with the effects of a military career and preparing for a life outside the military can be difficult, but made easier with the right support.
“If you are thinking about it or if you start feeling depressed, go and see someone before you even get out because it’s going to get worse once you step out of these gates and once you take that uniform off,” Rivera said.
Family members can help their loved ones with showing support and getting them the help they need after seeing warning signs for suicide.
“Things to look out for someone who may be thinking of suicide is if they are withdrawing or isolating themselves from the family, they are not engaging in the things they used to love and they start talking about death or that they are a burden to the family,” Williams Christians said.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 and can help in case of a sudden crisis.
“Usually the suicide thought doesn’t last very long, so if you can just get them through that brief moment it will hold you over until you can see your therapist the next day,” she said.