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Veteran suicides call for continued state funding of counseling program

New York State has the lowest suicide rate in the country, and the second-lowest for military veterans. The figures do not mask the fact that we have far too many deaths of despair, particularly among younger veterans.

The New York State Health Foundation, a private organization, released a report in late January showing the statewide suicide rate for veterans was 17.5 per 100,000. That is more than twice the rate for New York’s general population, which is 8.1 per 100,000.

In light of those statistics, it’s concerning that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s 2021 budget proposal does not include funding for a program that supports peer-to-peer counseling and mentoring for military veterans. The Joseph P. Dwyer Veteran Peer Support Project, also known as Vet2Vet, operates in 23 counties in the state, including Erie and Niagara.

The Dwyer program began in 2012, named for Pfc. Joseph P. Dwyer, an Iraq War veteran from Suffolk County who died of a drug overdose after suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder. Vet2Vet services include support groups, seminars and social activities, assistance in finding housing and employment, emotional support and referrals to useful services.

The program, which depends on state and county funding, also was left out of the governor’s initial budget proposal last year, but negotiations brought funding of about $4 million into the final budget. Lawmakers are asking for about $4.4 million for fiscal year 2021.

Erie County’s program is administered through the Veterans One-Stop Center, whose CEO, Chuck Marra, and Dwyer program director, Alyssa Vasquez, last month traveled to Albany, where they met with State Sens. Tim Kennedy, a Democrat, and Rob Ortt, a Republican, to make their case for continued state funding. Both are strong supporters of the program.

The Health Foundation study found that for younger veterans, ages 18 to 34, the suicide rate doubled between 2005 and 2017 in the state, from 12.8 per 100,000 to 27.7.

“Although suicide is a devastating event at any age, suicide among younger veterans results in the greatest number of years of life lost,” the Health Foundation noted.

There are many reasons for a higher suicide rate among veterans than for the general public. Those include PTSD from combat, other forms of mental illness related to their service, stress during their re-entry to civilian life, their possible involvement in substance abuse, and even their access to guns.

Generally speaking, New York is a national leader in suicide prevention. Recent figures show that with 8.1 suicides per 100,000 residents, this state had the nation’s lowest suicide rate in 2017, The average rate was 14 suicides per 100,000.

Among the reasons cited for New York’s record were low rates of gun-ownership and a high proportion of residents living in urban areas. Access to a gun triples the risk that someone will die by suicide, according to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine. A study at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center showed that someone who attempts suicide with a gun will succeed about 85% of the time, compared with a 2% fatality rate if someone tries with pills.

Those living in rural areas, meanwhile, are more likely to have greater access to firearms while also suffering from loneliness and isolation. That’s a volatile mix.

Conditions are trending downward: Suicide rates are rising around the country, including in New York. Nationally, the 2017 rate was 33% higher than it was in 1999. That demands focus at the state and national levels.

To serve suffering veterans, approximately $185,000 is needed from Albany for each program in Erie and Niagara counties, the Dwyer program directors told WKBW-TV. That’s a worthy investment to give a helping hand to veterans who need it.

The 24-hour crisis hot line in Erie County is 716-834-3131.

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