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VA summit engages community

The North Dakota suicide rate is above the national average for all age groups and has a higher rate of increase than other states, said Alison Traynor, director of suicide prevention for the North Dakota Department of Health.

Traynor spoke Thursday at a community mental health summit in Jamestown that was organized by the VA Health Care System in Fargo. Veteran suicide rates are also above the national average in North Dakota for men and women, she said.

"What we've noticed in North Dakota is that between 15 to 20 percent of all suicides are by veterans, or those who have served in the military," Traynor said.

The VA wants to help people who are struggling with mental health and it is helpful to be connected to those services, she said.

The national average for veteran suicides is around 20 per day, said Lavonne Liversage, director of the Fargo VA Health System. Around 14 of those deaths are veterans who were not receiving VA health care, she said.

"That's why these efforts are so incredibly important," she said.

The VA summits enable communities to help identify veterans who are at risk, Liversage said. The discussions help prepare people to assist for a better outcome, she said.

Traynor and her VA counterpart, Tammy Monsebroten, suicide prevention coordinator at the Fargo VA, said the factors that lead to suicide are multifaceted for veterans and the general population. Current theories point to exposure, trauma, perceived burdensomeness on family or loved ones, isolation or the feeling being alone, and acquired capacity or ability for suicide as the most common factors, they said.

"Traumatic exposure increases risk," Traynor said. "Suicide doesn't seem to be scary if you've been through hell."

Veterans have that acquired capability from being exposed to loss of life much like law enforcement, emergency responders and physicians, Monsebroten said. These are all people who deal with life and death situations on a fairly regular basis, she said.

Veterans have a higher number of suicide by firearms than the general population, she said. Around 90 percent who attempt suicide by firearm are likely to die which is higher than non-firearm attempts, she said.

Studies show that reducing access to the highest lethal means of suicide, if only briefly, does reduce the number of suicides, Monsebroten said. Gun locks are a way to keep guns in the home, which is important to a lot of veterans, but using a key control method such as giving it to a neighbor or friend can delay a suicidal thought from turning to action long enough to get help, she said.

"What we want is time and distance from the thought of suicide and the action," she said. "A lot of people that have attempted suicide say that from the time they thought about it to the time they followed through was less than 10 minutes."

When the Israeli Defense Force required soldiers to leave all firearms on base for weekend leave, the weekend suicide rate dropped by 40 percent, Monsebroten said. When Sri Lanka controlled access to pesticides, the suicide rate dropped 50 percent in 10 years because ingesting the poison had been the most common form of suicide, she said.

"The same amount of people were attempting suicide but they were not dying," Monsebroten said.

The community mental health summits are to enhance access to mental health services and better address the needs of veterans and their families, said Gerard Kottenbrock, the local recovery coordinator for the Fargo VA. Around 300 area health, public safety, faith, community and elected officials attended the Jamestown summit to hear about mental health, suicide prevention, opioid addiction and VA programs.

"It's really important as a rural state," Kottenbrock said "The annual summit is a way to bring the health system to rural communities."