Maine has one of the highest rates of veteran suicide in the nation, according to a recent Veterans Affairs study. Advocates say it’s time to confront the issue and shine a light on it.
Veterans in the U.S. are more than twice as likely as civilians to take their own lives. Here in Maine that rate is even higher.
“I don’t know a single veteran who doesn’t know someone who hasn’t committed suicide, and we just don’t talk about it that way,” says Adria Horn, who heads the Maine Bureau of Veteran Services.
Horn says she has her own stories to tell.
“My group sergeant major, when I was major in sci-op, committed suicide at Fort Bragg. One of my soldiers after being deploying and redeploying from Iraq committed suicide,” she says. “I can tell that you this is personal, other people need to assume that it is personal and it is happening instead of assuming that it hasn’t happened and you can’t be part of the solution.”
In September, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released its most comprehensive analysis of veteran suicide in each state and region. And it found that in 2014, Maine outpaced both the Northeast and the nation in veteran suicides.
Maine’s overall suicide rate was just under 20 per 100,000 people. But the number more than doubled for veterans to 48 per 100,000.
Linda Lajoie believes that number may even be higher.
“We’re not talking about it,” she says. “We’re brushing it under the rug.”
Lajoie has been committed to raising awareness about suicide since her 26-year-old son Dustin, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, took his own life in Dec. 2014.
Lajoie recently started the Silhouette Project, a display of 22 life-size silhouette cutouts of soldiers, representing the number of veterans who take their own lives each day in the U.S.
Lajoie says she initially got some pushback from critics who feared that memorializing veterans who committed suicide would send the wrong message. But Lajoie insists that’s not the point of her work.
“I am not trying to make them out as heroes for how they died, I am trying to make them as heroes for how they lived, and the invisible fights they fought that we were never aware of,” she says.
That invisible fight is one that Seth Palmer, a Marine veteran who recently returned from deployment, is all too familiar with.
“I still kinda get sketched out by large crowds. To me, there’s such an unknown — possibilities can happen. Driving, if I feel like someone is tailgating, following me, if they turn two times in the same direction I am going, I am taking a different way home at that point,” he says.
Being constantly on guard, Palmer says, can be draining. But unlike some veterans, he has a strong web of support in his life. Even so, reaching out wasn’t exactly easy for him at first.
“I felt like I was being judged if I had gone and sought help. I felt like people were going to think I was weak. I was a leader, I couldn’t be weak, I couldn’t seem weak. I couldn’t receive help on my own,” he says.
That’s why it’s important, advocates say, to be proactive.
“Ask someone if they are feeling suicidal. Just ask them, ‘Are you OK?’” Horn says. “All too often we have daily conversations that are mundane and about getting the car serviced and paying the bills and not actually general life conversations, and i just want to take a break and say, ‘Are you OK?’“
Horn’s office is hosting the 1st Annual Veterans Symposium, which will focus on suicide prevention. It’s scheduled for Dec. 12 at the University of Southern Maine and is open to the public.