At least one military veteran or active duty member died by suicide every week in El Paso County last year, according to the coroner’s 2021 death inquest report released Tuesday.
“The number is staggering,” said Damian McCabe, director of military affairs and behavioral health for UCHealth, which operates three hospitals and numerous clinics in Colorado Springs.
Of the county’s 176 suicide deaths in 2021, 53 people had experienced active or prior military service, according to the annual report. That’s a 10% increase from the previous year, when 36 active duty or military veterans died by suicide out of 178 suicide deaths countywide.
The most frequently cited risk factors were relationship problems, financial difficulties, substance abuse, chronic health conditions, grief, and legal problems.
“It’s awful,” McCabe said. “We had little to no impact no matter what services or how much we talked about.
“Not a week goes by that we don’t get asked to see a veteran who has attempted suicide or still insists they do.”
But a new pilot program led by state lawmakers aims to change that trajectory.
McCabe, who served in the military for 24 years, runs a state-funded veteran suicide prevention program called Next Chapter, in conjunction with the Mount Carmel Veterans Service Center and the Alliance’s Colorado Springs office. National Against Mental Illness, or NAMI.
Up to 700 veterans and their families can receive therapy, counseling, treatment, employment and housing assistance, and other behavioral health care – all free of charge and in a stigma-free and confidential environment. .
“Cost has been a significant barrier for people seeking care,” McCabe said. “We are trying to remove barriers to access.”
The 2021 legislation that created the grant allocates $2.7 million to the local program for fiscal year 2023. The Colorado Behavioral Health Administration oversees the project at the state level.
The pilot runs through June 2025, with state funding in fiscal years 2024 and 2025 of about $1.6 million per year, McCabe said.
The first clients have just started the program, which McCabe says differs from other prevention efforts in its genesis and structure.
“When we got together with these partners, we realized that none of us had a solution – we all have to work together,” he said. “We relied on the strengths of these partners.”
Instead of creating new services, the money is being spent on prioritizing mental health treatment for veterans among existing offerings.
“We’re trying to integrate services in a better way,” McCabe said.
UCHealth will treat those in need of immediate attention for a psychiatric condition and will also connect family members with NAMI for support groups and bring veterans into the Mount Carmel Veterans Service Center food assistance line. , housing, employment, personal relationships and other matters.
NAMI Executive Director Lori Jarvis-Steinwert likes that the program takes a holistic, holistic approach to creating veteran health and wellness.
“Treatment is part of it, but it’s also having a supportive community, starting to break down the stigma, having a chance to meet other veterans who are struggling, giving families a chance to meet other families,” said Jarvis-Steinwert. “It will help us take it to the next level as a community to understand what it means to work trauma-informed.”
Suicide prevention looks at the stressors in people’s lives that lead to emergency room admission and guides people to avoid reaching that boiling point.
The grant covers individualized services, such as consistent outpatient therapy, neurological care for patients with traumatic brain injury, or residential treatment for substance use disorders, for example, McCabe said.
“We want veterans to think about what’s next in their lives – can you see past the crisis in the next chapter?
“If they call us or go online to a single point of access, they get a live person who will give them the opportunity to talk face-to-face about anything that challenges their kids, their relationships, their finances. , job loss, home loss,” McCabe said. “It helps us determine the level of care and the best service to provide them.”
Additionally, premium rates will be used to incentivize providers to participate in treatment, McCabe said.
The pervasive lack of mental health professionals isn’t necessarily about the number of people working in the industry, he said, but rather about how mental health care is funded.
About 80% of behavioral health specialists in El Paso County work in private, individual or group practices, McCabe said.
“They have businesses to run and have to make decisions about what types of patients to enroll,” he said. “It’s a challenge when you’re hoping the Veterans Administration or Medicaid will pay.”
UCHealth will also train master’s-level social worker candidates, therapists already in the field, and organizations that work with veterans on cultural competency in working with the population, McCabe said.
El Paso County was chosen as the testing ground because not only does it lead the state in suicide deaths, but it is also a national hotspot for high rates of suicides. veterans.
Success doesn’t just mean lower stats, McCabe said.
“Will we have more providers available for veterans to go to, whether veterans who have been served turn around and volunteer to serve, whether we develop peer support, whether we don’t have 53 deaths in 2023 and if we repeat that in 2024…until we can reasonably say that our community provides the support necessary for that to happen, I don’t know if we can say we’ve succeeded.
To access services, veterans and their family members can make an appointment through the program’s website, www.NextChapterCo.org, or by calling 1-888-719-VETS.
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