Preventing Veteran Suicide
Thanking our nation’s veterans on Veterans Day, and all year round, is a wonderful thing. But we can do more. Veterans have often experienced stress that humans are not equipped to handle easily. All too often, this stress gets buried and leads to mental health issues, and because of the stigma our society assigns to mental health troubles, these also get buried, sometimes with tragic results. Veteran suicide is pandemic of its own, and we should recognize this, work to get our heroes the help they need, and do all we can to remove the stigma.
Tony Vivaldi founded an organization called Save A Vet Now, which works to make veterans understand that it’s okay to not be okay and to connect those in need of help with free, confidential, professional counseling. We spoke to Vivaldi about the Save A Vet Now organization, how the group is helping our heroes, and how we can all join the fight.
Save A Vet Now was founded in 2019, correct? Can you speak to the growth of the organization, and especially your partnership with Coastal Horizons? How has that partnership helped you fulfill your mission?
Save A Vet Now was founded in July 2019 and, since, the organization has become a member of the Governor’s Council on Veteran Suicide Prevention and can be found in the National Resource Directory. Most important to our veterans with suicide ideation, Save A Vet Now has partnered with Coastal Horizons, a well known and highly respected service provider in the field of mental health and substance abuse. Together, we created the Veterans Outreach Program, which provides veterans in the Cape Fear Region with an opportunity to receive treatment for their suicide ideation without financial barriers at any of Coastal Horizons’ outpatient clinics in Brunswick, New Hanover, and Pender County. The Program includes funding to ensure veterans can access treatment without incurring out-of-pocket expenses. You can learn more about Save A Vet Now and Coastal Horizons on saveavetnow.org and coastal horizons.org. This partnership is different from many other suicide prevention organizations in that Coastal Horizons, while it has its share of counselors, employs those professionals who can treat and prescribe as necessary. This helps tremendously when trying to attract those veterans who “hide in the shadows” since help is readily available and, under HIPPA rules, it is discrete.
Is the tri-county area you serve an especially veteran heavy demographic?
I cannot speak to the specific demographics for Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender Counties. What I can say is that there are more than 700,000 veterans residing in North Carolina and our tri-county area lies somewhere between the average 19 percent residing in the densest counties and the average 6% residing in the lowest populated counties. I doubt these numbers are easily extrapolated, but let’s assume the demographic for our three counties is 10 percent or 70,000. I have been told by the VA that they only reach 40 percent of the veterans who need help. That means as many as 42,000 of our local troubled veterans can be dealing with their suicide ideation alone, with no professional intervention. These are the veterans Save A Vet Now is focused on.
Under normal circumstances, what strategies do you employ to reach vets who may have a need?
The challenge is to break the silence and dispel the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide. Pre-COVID pandemic, we had a modicum of success as a result of our community awareness efforts with local businesses, organizations and clubs, public media exposure, and fundraisers. The greater challenge is to get veterans to ask for help. After speaking with many local veterans, I remain shocked at what they reveal. The most telling thing about them is that many, if not the majority, are embarrassed by their condition…so much so that some don’t even want to be seen as veterans. Afraid and distrustful, they avoid the VA or any other treatment option mostly because they want their illness to remain private. So they tough it out, hoping time will heal their wounds. I am reaching out to other organizations who have had some level of success to learn how they have bridged this gap and convinced veterans to seek help. These veterans who are “going it alone” are our focus at Save A Vet Now.
A big help in reaching these veterans is, at least for now, convincing reporters, like you, to include, out of necessity, a direct outreach to the veterans we wish to attract. They are as much wounded warriors as those with battle scars. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), a contributor to suicide ideation qualifies a veteran for award of the purple heart. Regardless of an inappropriate stigma applied by an ill-informed public, they don’t have to “go it alone.” Its okay to not be okay. There is help available to those who want their illness to remain private. To access the Veterans Outreach Program, contact Coastal Horizons and be prepared to provide proof that you are a veteran; ID card, driver’s license indicating veteran status, or DD Form 214.
Brunswick County, Coastal Horizons Center, Hwy 17 South, 120 Coastal Horizons Drive, Shallotte, NC. 910 754-4515
New Hanover County, Coastal Horizons Center, Willie Stargell Office Park, 615 Shipyard Blvd, Wilmington, NC. 910 343-0145
Pender Country, Coastal Horizons Center, Pender Office, 803 S. Walker Street, Burgaw, NC. 910 259-0668
How has the COVID pandemic impacted mental health in general and among veterans in particular?
As you may know, there are 20 military related deaths by suicide every single day. It is now being reported that this number is increasing by as much as 20 percent as a result of the COVID pandemic. Veteran suicide is a deadly crisis. It is silently happening all around us and we are doing little to stop it. It is resilient. Despite our best efforts, it hasn’t changed in over a decade. And it doesn’t discriminate against age, gender, race, or religion. Social interaction, a staple for suicide prevention, has been replaced by social distancing, which is no friend to suicide ideation.
What challenges has the pandemic presented to your organization and how are you overcoming them? Have you learned any valuable lessons dealing with the pandemic that will help you going forward?
It is not an understatement to say the COVID pandemic has hampered us in many ways. Opportunities to improve community awareness through speeches and meetings have all but dried up. Fundraising, which helps acquire advertising and supports the Veterans Outreach Program, is at a standstill. Where opportunities to improve community awareness do exist, I find that people are weary of the chaos this pandemic has brought and are longing for something positive. Talking about suicide surely doesn’t meet this requirement. Like so many others, Save A Vet Now is developing strategies to deal with the “new normal” that will be with us for the foreseeable future. In person speeches and fundraisers will be moved “online” through 2021. We will rely more on public media than ever before in “getting the word out.” We are actively seeking out, with some success, well-known, highly-respected, veteran-friendly organizations with a voice and a platform from which they are heard throughout the community to help us achieve our goals.
Can you tell me about the Artwork Can Save A Vet fundraiser? How can readers participate? What are your plans for going forward? How can readers help?
The Artwork Can Save A Vet fundraiser, which is intended to occur around Veterans Day, has been cancelled this year because of the COVID pandemic. We are hopeful that an event that will feature local veterans’ works of art will take place in November 2021. For now, readers can help by going to Blue Moon Gift Shops on 203 Racine Dr. in Wilmington and looking for A.M. Vivaldi Watercolors. While there, look for the Save A Vet Now tag at other vendor locations as well. Every purchase is a donation to the Veterans Outreach Program administered by Coastal Horizons.