Peer Support Key in Veteran Suicide Prevention

September 26, 2019

Peer support and encouraging veterans to tell their stories emerged as key themes at the Los Angeles County Suicide Prevention Network’s 9th Annual Suicide Prevention Summit.

The two-day event, “The Hero in Each of US: Finding Your Role in Supporting Veterans, Military, and Their Families,” kicked off Wednesday at the California Endowment in Los Angeles.

“The notion of peer support is incredibly powerful [and] an important path to healing,” said Jeff Eamer, a marriage & family therapist who attended the event.

U.S.Vets Executive Director Robert Stohr extended the idea, pointing out that isolation is a major risk factor for suicide. “We need to make space for veterans to tell their stories,” he said.

Building a greater appreciation of military and veteran culture is another critical element in the effort to counter what Professor Michael Anestis described as a national suicide epidemic—rates have increased 30% since 2000 at a 5% yearly clip.

Those numbers cover all U.S. suicide deaths, but military members and veterans are especially at risk.

“‘Suck it up!’ is great in combat,” said Army National Guard chaplain, licensed clinical social worker and veteran activist Nathan Graeser, “but it doesn’t work in civilian life. Veterans need to know they can ask for help,” he said.

Former Long Beach VA police chief and Secure Measures CEO David Weiner agreed, pointing to the need for civilians to become better attuned to the hard-charging realities of military culture.

“People can’t really help what they don’t understand,” he said.

Tess Banko, Executive Director of the UCLA Veteran Family Wellness Center, is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran whose husband committed suicide while on active duty.

She told the summit that after his death, she was “shunned by everyone.”

“Back then, the military didn’t know how to deal with it,” Banko said. “After a month, they told me ‘it’s time for you to get over it and come back to work.’”

An array of speakers, including veteran and military service providers, mental health professionals, law enforcement, researchers and individuals representing LA County, LA City and community organizations addressed the summit.

Marine Corps veteran Eric Barrera gave a stirring account of his personal battles with drugs, alcohol and homelessness.

He is now part of a field-based mobile unit run by Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (LACDMH) that supports homeless and dishonorably discharged veterans.

That effort is slated to significantly expand by mid-2020 when LA County’s Veteran Peer Access Network (VPAN) becomes fully operational.

VPAN’s mission is to put an integrated network of trained veteran peers on the ground throughout LA County to connect veterans and their families to critical benefits and services, like housing, health care, substance abuse intervention, training, education and job placement.

The network embodies the #YouMatter ideal – that veterans deserve hope, well-being, and a greater quality of life as valued LA County citizens.

Learn more about LACDMH’s mental health programs for veterans, including VPAN.