Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Cascade Potential of Suicide

*Note: all names and identifiers have been changed, but this story is true.

His name was Michael.  He was in the wrong place at the wrong time when the shooter at Ft. Hood created mayhem, horror, and fear.  His friends knew that the incident, deemed “workplace violence” was never far from his mind, but they thought he was okay.  He was not.  He committed suicide this month.  This did not make the newspapers except in a small obituary, but it sent a resounding echo of despair to his circle of friends.

One friend of his, Jim, reacted very strongly to the news of the suicide.  He became very angry.  He became physically violent toward his wife.  He vehemently threatened systematic destruction of all of his VA doctors (while in the halls of his local VA), and he expressed suicidal intentions.   In each instance, his local VA suicide prevention coordinator was unable to provide help because Jim was not “actively suicidal”.  The Caregiver spoke twice with  the suicide prevention psychologist who said he could not do anything without an in-the-moment attempt.  When saying it makes no sense not to throw a float to a drowning man, his wife said this, “it seems that until you are underwater, going down for the last time, that no one can actually do anything”.

One week later, after two visits to the local ER, (while his wife made careful safety contingency plans for herself), the situation worsened.  Jim took a household knife into the bathroom with him  and attempted suicide. (All firearms had long been removed from the household). When his wife broke into the bathroom, he threatened her with the knife and said he would first kill her, then himself.  Through a near-miracle, she was able to get him to the local ER and began anew to get him VA psychiatric care.  Many calls (some with outside assistance and advocacy) were made to the VA Crisis Line.  Crisis Line recommendations to obtain local VA help went to unanswered voicemail... 

With great compassion but also frustration, it seemed that most everyone’s hands were tied in some way or another, and the hours crept by.  Finally the VA said it would admit Jim, but his wife would have to drive him nearly two hours to the facility – which under the circumstances was potentially too dangerous.  Eventually into the wee hours, the private hospital moved him to a nearby psychiatric facility since no safe transport could be arranged to the VA.  He remains there today, awaiting a private PTSD program.
There are gaps in any system.  However, the current issue is the lack of follow-up by the local VA including his case manager, the suicide prevention coordinator, and the social work office.  The Caregiver is exhausted, emotionally spent, and has no Caregiver Support Coordinator despite being in the National Caregiver Program. They have communicated their situation to leadership at VA for two years.  These at-risk veterans and their families need consistent follow-up after a suicide attempt, and the care gaps back-filled.  There are policies in place to aid in care and recovery.  But – it doesn’t always happen as written.

Please be aware of your fellow veterans and families.  Be aware that the suicide of a friend may create abrupt behavioral changes in your veteran, and in the worst case, lead to another suicide.  Know that long-term frustrations can suddenly spill over and create volatile situations.  And, always have the number of the Crisis Line, an advocate, and a personal support person if this happens to you.  Friends and social media can spread word of suicide in seconds, and information may be wrong, yet the actions some take can be irreversible.

When in doubt, please reach out! And, as caregivers, remember this:  the life you save may be your own.

Blessings and care,

Linda Kreter & the VeteranCaregiver Team

Friday, February 1, 2013

Winter Blahs!

Over the past few weeks I have spoken to a number of families who seem to be struggling in many ways, just to deal with day-to-day life.  One family had multiple health problems with many medical appointments, another had a death which required an out of state trip. Even in my own family we have had various depressing problems.
I went to have coffee with a good friend and I was talking to her about life in general getting harder to deal with.  She looked at me with great seriousness and told me I had caught the Winter Blahs. I laughed thinking she was joking. Well, in part she was but she was also deadly serious.  This time of year is often hardest for families who are caregiving. Getting someone in a wheelchair to hospital appointments can be a nightmare in bad weather. Snow, icy roads and freezing fog combine to make any driving stressful.  Multiple illness in a household causes more stress.  Children can be cooped up in the house with few ways to get rid of excess energy.
I have been trying to think of ways, just small ways, to help get through this part of the year.  For one thing the days of clouds and low light really depresses me so I have switched to full spectrum lights in many parts of my house, especially the lights I use mostly.
I try to find one thing each day to look forward to for myself.  It can be 15 minutes with a good book, a quick manicure or planning my garden for when the spring comes.
 If I have things to do that I really do not want to deal with, I try and do those early in the day if I can. That way they are not nagging at me for hours.
I  get outside in the fresh air even if it is just for a few moments.  I look for joy in small things; an insect creeping up a leaf or a pattern in the clouds (which was always a game when I was a kid). I also remind myself that winter is not going to last and that the sniffles and fog and horrid road trips will be gone soon.
 I get exercise of some sort even if it is with the Wii or the stair stepper. I'll see if I can fit in a new project; being creative is a good cure for the Blahs. Knitting, painting, cooking or sewing are all productive and you can see the results of your work. Right now I am trying to grow some fresh herbs in pots on the window ledge.
Above all the support of friends and family helps. Being stuck together in a small space can make all of us edgy, but  if you can get the family involved with a little planning you can chase away these Winter Blahs.