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Lowering the Veteran Suicide Rate Starts with Discussing Mental Health

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By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, and

I recently sat down with members of Healthy Men Michigan, an organization partnered with Screening for Mental Health Inc., for a candid tweetchat about veteran suicide. Healthy Men Michigan is a campaign to engage men in a conversation about mental health.

Here are some of the questions I raised during my chat with Healthy Men Michigan and my perspective on those questions.

What are some common myths about veterans and their mental health? What are some of the obstacles that veterans face due to these myths?

The biggest myth that I encounter when I travel and speak to companies is that ALL Post 9/11 veterans have PTSD. Some people consider that veterans are unable to compete for meaningful employment in the civilian world.

Certainly, PTSD is a very important issue facing our veterans, but not every veteran has PTSD. Those who do suffer from PTSD can still be incredible team members in any organization.

The other myth is the veteran suicide rate. People commonly use the number 22, as in 22 veterans die by suicide daily in the United States.

In fact, the number is likely much higher than 22 because of some reporting omissions by certain states. In addition, the majority of those suicides are Vietnam-era veterans, not recent veterans.

What impact do these myths and obstacles have on veterans’ health and wellness?

When we focus all of our attention on modern veterans for suicide prevention, especially when Vietnam veterans are more at risk, our older generation of veterans may not get the support and outreach that they clearly need. I’m not minimizing treatment and support for today’s veterans; I’ve lost some very close brothers to this epidemic.

But while we need to acknowledge that the Vietnam generation is vulnerable, we should focus on veteran suicide for ALL generations.

Do you have any strategies or tips for engaging the veteran population with mental health? Any language you tend to use?

In my experience, veterans are direct, no-nonsense individuals. My greatest success comes from asking them directly, “Are you in danger? Are you going to hurt yourself?”

As a byproduct of their military service, veterans are mission-focused, even in non-military civilian matters. I use very “mission-centric” language. I challenge veterans to complete their new mission: attacking addiction and suicide head on. A veteran far enough along in suicidal ideation sees death as peace and living as pain.

Do you have personal experience supporting a veteran or receiving support as a veteran?

Having served in two branches, the Army and the Air Force, I have double the network to check up on. I often speak with “my” veterans to make sure everyone is in a good place.

For those veterans who are not in a good place, I start the process of talking, confiding, sharing and ultimately pointing them to some veteran-specific resources. I am not a healthcare professional. I’m more of the first line of defense for veterans suffering from mental health. Some vets may trust one of their own to start the conversation before I refer them to professional services.

What are some veteran-specific community resources available to help vets in need? What can you suggest for veteran self-care?

In the event of suicidal thoughts, the very first call should be to the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and Press 1. The Department of Veterans Affairs has made huge improvements in recent years, especially with veterans’ mental health. Make the Connection, a website launched by the VA, is easy to navigate and loaded with great information at

It’s important to remember that veterans are never alone. I’ve seen veterans who didn’t even serve together in the same branch drive thousands of miles to help other veterans in need.

It’s one huge family. So even if a veteran feels alone, you never truly are.

Have you heard about the Healthy Men Michigan campaign? How do you think that WE can work to support veteran mental health? What can YOU, as an individual, do to support veterans’ mental health?

Since the majority of veteran suicides are middle-age veterans, I support Healthy Men Michigan’s campaign. I think continued outreach, perhaps with an emphasis on veteran addiction, would be a great start.

A number of studies show a link between veteran addiction or substance abuse and veteran suicide. The opioid overdose death rate far surpasses the daily suicide rate, and many vets are addicted. Addiction is just as important to talk about with veterans who may use pills to cope with PTSD.

Veteran suicide is an extremely complex problem with many different, interconnected pieces. Perhaps it is best to start small, using a comfortable setting, and have an honest, one-on-one dialogue with high-risk veterans about drugs, alcohol, depression or suicide.


Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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