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Suicides, stress among veterans on the rise

Eighteen veterans kill themselves every day.

One in five suicides in America claims the life of a veteran.

Suicides among veterans younger than 30 grew by 26 percent in a recent two-year period.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki addressed these statistics at a suicide prevention conference in Washington that drew at least one representative from the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The conference runs through tomorrow.

"Of the more than 30,000 suicides in this country each year, fully 20 percent of them are acts by veterans," Shinseki said Monday. "That means on average 18 veterans commit suicide each day. Five of those veterans are under our care at VA."

Among younger veterans, the stress of multiple tours of duty and the increasing reliance on National Guard troops mostly unaccustomed to yearlong deployments away from home are leaving many soldiers psychologically devastated, health officials said. Last year, a Rand Corp. report said one in five Iraq or Afghanistan veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.

Northport's chief of psychiatry, Dr. Charlene Thomesen, said there have been few suicides reported in recent years among outpatients treated there.

She said there were no suicides among Northport's patients during fiscal year 2009, which ended Sept. 30, four in fiscal 2008 and three in fiscal 2007.

But those figures reflect only deaths among outpatients that were confirmed and reported as suicides to Northport officials.

Shinseki spoke at the second annual DoD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference, which is geared toward finding out why there are so many military-related suicide deaths and what can be done to prevent them.

Byung Sa, who served two tours in Iraq, said although he does not know anyone who has committed suicide, deployments often leave soldiers feeling abandoned by friends, church colleagues and other support groups. Returning home can also be traumatic, he said, as soldiers trade highly structured military lives for often chaotic civilian ones.

"I know one soldier who had a total mental breakdown," said Sa, a student at Stony Brook University and an Army Reserve staff sergeant. "She just totally shut herself down, and even her friends couldn't reach her."

Suicides appear to be rising among active-duty soldiers as well. There were 147 reported suicides in the Army from January through November, compared to 127 in the same period of 2008, according to the Pentagon.

Reported suicides among nonactive duty reserve soldiers rose from 50 in all of 2008 to 71 during the first 11 months of 2009.

Suicide prevention help tailored to veterans may be obtained at 800 273-8255, ext. 1.

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