Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin this week joined officials from the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance and representatives of a variety of veterans’ organizations to announce the Mountain State 22 program – an initiative designed to spotlight issues that prompt suicide among veterans and reduce the number of veterans’ suicides.
“West Virginia’s veterans have made immense sacrifices in service to our state and nation,” Gov. Tomblin said. “When our military men and women return to civilian life, we should be doing everything in our power to ensure they have the support and services they need to lead healthy and productive lives. Our hope is for this program to identify the risk factors that can lead to suicide, and work hand-in-hand with our veterans to overcome these issues.”
The program began to take shape earlier this year when West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance Deputy Secretary Billy Wayne Bailey approached Gov. Tomblin with the idea of creating a collaborative program that focuses on specific issues that could prompt suicide among former soldiers. Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and after-effects of exposure to chemicals are among the causes believed to create risks for suicide.
Mountain State 22 is the first State-managed program in the country directed specifically toward curbing veterans’ suicides.
“We are taking small steps now, but our idea is to create a suicide-prevention initiative that will let veterans and their family members know that help is available. Our starting point is the belief that suicides among veterans are preventable,” Bailey said. “As we begin this venture, which is the only one of its kind, we have three big-picture objectives. We want to bring attention to the issues that prompt suicide, to find and seek the right help for our veterans who might be at risk and to drastically reduce that number of suicides among West Virginia veterans.”
According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs studies, the national average for suicides in the U.S. is 22 per day. There were eight reported suicides in 2015 among West Virginia veterans.
“There were eight suicides that were ‘reported’ as suicides. Unfortunately, that number is probably higher,” Bailey said. “Our approach is that one is too many.”
The Rev. Chris Thompson – a Wheeling native and former National Guard chaplain who has served in West Virginia, Ohio and Florida – is Bailey’s appointment to head the Mountain State 22 program. Thompson is setting regional discussion meetings around the state that will include agencies, organizations, veterans and individuals with medical and mental health treatment experience.
The Mountain State 22 program will also include education and public awareness initiatives designed to reach veterans and their family members.
“This program is in its initial stages. We have a lot of growing and learning to do,” Bailey said. “But we’re heading into this with boots on the ground. We’re taking an aggressive approach, because the problem of veterans committing suicide needs attention now.”