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Rural Pennsylvania counties rank high in veteran suicides

  • By Tom Riese/WVIA News
An Army honor guard folds a flag from a casket during a memorial service and burial at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly Township, Mich., Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014.

 Paul Sancya / AP Photo

An Army honor guard folds a flag from a casket during a memorial service and burial at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly Township, Mich., Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014.

Advocates say veterans in Pennsylvania’s rural counties need more support to prevent suicide.

“We received our first phone call that someone had taken their life. I was shocked,” said Christine LeClair, director of Veterans Affairs in Carbon County. “And the next month there was another phone call, and the next month there was another phone call.”

A veterans service organization found that Northeast Pennsylvania counties are among the most impacted. National programs with local chapters and a new veterans hub at the St. Luke’s Lehighton campus have sprung up in the region to try to reverse that trend. Pennsylvania has the fourth largest veteran population in the U.S, ranking only behind Texas, Florida and California.

LeClair is a U.S. Army veteran with eight years of service. She had been in her current role for just one month when she learned that her county faced a serious problem. In LeClair’s first eight months, the Carbon office got eight calls about veterans dying by suicide.

“I reached out to different entities to try to find out … what those statistics looked like over the past few years,” LeClair said, “And really it was so difficult to find answers to those questions.”

It wasn’t until a program of the VA’s Office of Rural Health shared information with Carbon County that LeClair had the full scope: Carbon County has the highest veteran suicide rate out of all of Pennsylvania counties.

The data was shared by Together With Veterans (TWV), a Colorado-based rural veteran suicide prevention initiative which is funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but functions with local chapters. Using veteran population numbers from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, TWV determined the veteran suicide rate by looking at Center for Disease Control and Prevention statistics from 2005 to 2017.

But LeClair also learned that Carbon County isn’t an outlier in Northeast Pennsylvania.

Wayne County, with the second-highest veteran suicide rate in the state, is followed by Schuylkill, Bradford and Wyoming all within the top ten hardest-hit counties, according to TWV.

Together With Veterans Northeastern Pennsylvania

The Northeast Pennsylvania chapter of Together With Veterans launched last year in Carbon County. The group determined veteran suicide rates for each of the commonwealth’s 67 counties.

Veterans in rural areas are more likely to die by suicide compared to those in urban areas, according to the state’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA). That’s on top of the already higher than average suicide rate for veterans compared to the general population.

Richard Hamp, special assistant to the Deputy Adjutant General at the DMVA, spent more than 30 years in the U.S. Army and Pennsylvania National Guard. Since 2017, he has also led the department’s efforts to prevent suicide among former service members.

Hamp said the Northeast Pennsylvania chapter of Together With Veterans was rolled out last year in Carbon County. He said getting veterans to open up about mental health is one of his biggest challenges.

“Stigma is one of the things that keep our veterans from reaching out for the help that they need,” Hamp said. “It takes a hero to ask for help.”

LeClair agreed, saying that stigma even affects families after a loved one has taken their life.

“A lot of the families, they just don’t discuss it,” she said. “You’ll read obituaries and … it’ll say that they passed away at home, but the circumstance surrounding their death is really never discussed, especially if they have children.”

That means tracking a problem like veteran suicide at the county-level is difficult. LeClair said her office in Carbon has a working relationship with the county coroner.

“If he’s able to identify that someone is a veteran, he will get in touch with us so we can work together to provide services to the family,” LeClair said.

But, she said, other county VA offices might not have the the bandwidth, the funding or the staff to spend time tracking veteran suicides like Carbon.

According to TWV’s data, Bradford County has the sixth-highest veteran suicide rate in the state. Pete Miller of the Bradford VA said his office has counted three veteran suicides in the last six years. Miller also said he wasn’t sure where the state gets their data.

And in Susquehanna County, with a population about 38,000 people in Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier, county VA Director Jeffrey Mead said they don’t have “any mechanism to track (or even be aware of)” veteran suicides there.

The Pennsylvania veterans department said they don’t compile suicide data themselves, according to a spokesperson. The state and county VA departments rely on the national veteran’s department, who puts out statewide data sheets, most recently for 2020.

However, the national VA doesn’t break down numbers by county in the data sheets. The 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report also only looks at national demographics.

Hamp said the national veteran suicide rate has decreased in the last two years. He’s looking forward to feedback from newer veterans mental health initiatives, like the Mission Daybreak Challenge, a part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Startups are competing to win millions of dollars in funds for suicide prevention strategies.

“Our goal is to keep our service members, veterans and their families well, so we don’t have to deal with them in crisis,” Hamp said, adding that it’s important to keep depression and anxiety at bay before it leads to a suicide attempt.

If you’re in need of support, you can dial 988 to reach the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Veterans can also dial 988 and press 1, or text 838-255 for the Veteran Crisis Line.

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