Rural Veterans and Suicide Prevention: Leveraging Strengths in Eastern Colorado

This past Sunday, November 11, marked the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending hostilities in World War I. Since 1938, the U.S. has recognized November 11 as Veterans Day — a day to honor all military veterans, including the 374,000 who call Colorado home.

In the world of state health policy, we often don’t find ourselves focusing on veterans, as many are served by federal systems. In Colorado, nearly half (45 percent) are on Medicare and another third (32 percent) use the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) system. About 10 percent of veterans rely on Medicaid, a state program, for coverage. Another 3 percent remain uninsured.

Yet veterans face a range of distinct health challenges. Coloradans who have served are more than twice as likely to have a disability that makes it hard to get around. Nationally, one in six Americans who have been deployed struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Veterans also are particularly at risk of dying by suicide. There are many reasons why, including the challenge of transitioning back to civilian life, stress, and underlying behavioral health issues. It's the top clinical health priority of the VA.

That's why a new effort in Colorado is bringing local community resources together to support veterans and prevent suicides in Colorado's Eastern Plains.

Rural veterans and suicide prevention

Between 18 and 22 vets die by suicide daily, a rate 50 percent higher than the overall population. Nationally, one in five suicide deaths are veterans.

Research suggests that rural veterans are particularly at risk.

And yet there are many resources and strong ties in rural communities that can help support veterans.

That's why the Regional Health Connector program, hosted by CHI and the Trailhead Institute, is creating a brand-new position to help strengthen those supports: A Veteran Health Connector.

The Veteran Health Connector is part of a new partnership with Together With Veterans, a project focused on preventing suicides among rural veterans. It's funded by the Colorado State Innovation Model, or SIM, a federally funded initiative to expand access to integrated behavioral and physical health care.

The first steps: Starting in December, the Veteran Health Connector (who is herself a veteran) will form a community coalition focused on suicide prevention for veterans in a region that encompasses 10 eastern and northeastern Colorado counties — Logan, Morgan, Phillips, Sedgwick, Washington, Yuma, Cheyenne, Elbert, Kit Carson, and Lincoln. She'll also help assess the area's needs and assets in order to create a roadmap for Eastern Plains communities and veterans as they strive to prevent suicides. 

The goal is to help create a strong and connected system that can support veterans in this entire region.

The program's organizers say the new Veteran Health Connector will be tapping into some unique strengths: Some of Colorado's rural communities are home to many veterans who care deeply about this issue. The Veteran Health Connector will have the time and the resources to help leverage their strengths and find solutions.

You'll be able to contact the Veteran Health Connector via the Regional Health Connectors website starting in December.

Reducing suicides in any community is a complex task. But acknowledging the challenges facing veterans in rural Colorado and bringing together community members are important steps toward taking care of those who have taken care of us.

Find more resources for veterans from the Rocky Mountain MIRECC for Suicide Prevention.

Call the Colorado Crisis & Support Line at 1-844-493-TALK (8255) to connect with a trained counselor in your area.

Emily Johnson and Ashlie Brown contributed to this blog post.

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