I recently made a trip to the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) in Westchester, Ill. The state of Illinois is one of eight states that have been selected by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to develop a statewide plan utilizing veteran peer support specialists to combat suicide.
I’m not sure if it was with irony or with intent, but on the first morning of our academy, an online military publication, “Task and Purpose,” featured an article about the increasing inefficiency of the veterans crisis line. Resources such as the crisis line need to be accessible and effective for persons vulnerable to suicide, but service members and veterans deserve further access to quality interventions.
One significant opportunity for prevention is with community health care providers. I was stunned to learn that 80 percent of veterans who die from suicide seek health care in the community, yet research indicates only 7 percent of community health care providers feel they are competent in military culture. In other words, trained health care professionals who are best positioned to positively intervene are far less equipped than their VHA counterparts.
Another method of reducing suicide is to engage in “means restriction.” This simply means making suicide harder by restricting access to lethal means. What if, however, we utilized a prevention portal that made peer support as easily accessible as firearms? Is it possible that increasing access to trained peer support professionals who appropriately disclose their personal trauma recovery is more effective in preventing suicide than reducing access to means?
Peer support assumes that the person most likely to engage with another person is someone with similar life experience. To this end, the Illinois Certification Board launched the Certified Veteran Support Specialist (CVSS) credential for service members, veterans and their families on May 1, 2017. Similar to the Certified Recovery Support Specialist (CRSS) credential, the CVSS is a competency-based professional human services credential rooted in principles of peer support.
Peer support, also known as recovery support, is an evidence-based approach that is gaining momentum across the health care and human services spectrum. The Veterans Health Administration is the largest employer of peer specialists who operate on a person-centric recovery model. In Illinois, public mental health agencies that promote recovery-oriented services employ recovery support specialists.
The two-day strategy discussion in Westchester concluded with Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS) Secretary James Dimas saying, “You can count on DHS to do everything within our power to support this. Our heroes deserve no less.” I am encouraged and heartened by his public support, but community support is also needed.
With 22 veterans dying every single day from suicide — the majority of who served prior to 911 — we need to modify our social indifference and refuse to limit trained peer support to government-funded systems. Veterans and civilians alike deserve access to competency-based recovery support in faith communities, fitness centers, education settings and other arenas where people congregate to improve their overall quality of life.
As I left the VHA, I discovered my cab driver was a veteran who had attempted suicide several decades ago upon his return from Vietnam. Of all the cab drivers that possibly could have been dispatched to my location, it was no accident this veteran was my driver.
I asked what helped him to move on with his life. He told me his sister insisted he get help, and what helped most was talking about what happened to other vets who understood his combat experiences. My cab driver understood all too well the life-sustaining value of peer support. My hope is that, after reading this article, so will you.