A new resource to support rural veterans will soon be available in Greene County.
Greene is one of two counties in the state and about 30 communities nationwide to implement Together With Veterans Rural Suicide Prevention Program (TWV), aimed at addressing and preventing suicide among veterans.
“Unfortunately, I know as many personally who have lost their lives to suicide or other bad decisions, I know just as many (who died) that way as I know soldiers that we did lose in combat,” said Chris Clark, a 29-year Army retiree and National Guard soldier who serves as co-coordinator of Greene County’s TWV program.
“One of my additional duties in the Army was as a suicide intervention officer. I’ve had those 3 a.m. calls. I’ve had some very personal experience in it and some training in it.”
When Kathy Cipcic, director/CVSO for Greene County Veterans Affairs, who’s known Clark for nearly two decades, received an email about the TWV program, she knew his training, experience and personal connection would make him an excellent program coordinator. She also knew area veterans needed the program.
According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the national suicide rate in 2018 was 18.4%. That same year, Pennsylvania’s suicide rate was 19.2%.
And the state’s veteran suicide rate was nearly double the national rate, at 31.3%.
“This is a tough, hard-working kind of area that is not prone to ask for help,” said Clark. “Sometimes there’s that thought that if someone comes forward, they’ll be judged.”
Underlying causes of suicide include substance and alcohol abuse, unemployment, housing and food insecurity, issues prevalent in Greene County. Social isolation and access to firearms also lead to higher suicide rates in rural areas, said Dr. Nate Mohatt, program implementation and evaluation manager at the Rocky Mountain MIRECC for Suicide Prevention with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, who helped develop TWV.
“There isn’t one big thing,” said Mohatt, who noted rural areas often lack the behavioral health care resources available in urban settings. Stigma surrounding mental health issues is also more prevalent in rural areas.
“People don’t fake needing help, they fake being OK. There is that stigma that goes along with asking for help for something like this,” said Clark. “We’ve got to try to normalize things ... lift some of that stigma.”
In 2015, Together With Veterans launched in southern Colorado with the goal of connecting rural veterans to resources they needed. The following year, the program was pilot tested in northwestern Montana and coastal Carolina, said Mohatt.
“One of the cool things unique to Together With Veterans is we’re training and supporting veterans to lead these efforts. It’s really laypeople and veterans doing the work,” said Mohatt. “We thought, if we’re going to prevent suicide among veterans ... we should go straight to them, ask them what they need. They wanted to learn how to tackle suicide prevention.”
In partnership with WICHE and through grant funding from the Community Foundation, Cipcic and Clark, along with facilitators Bri Piper and Alisa Hatchett, are bringing the program to Southwestern Pennsylvania – and serving as a community-specific resource for veterans in need.
“This program has the potential to save lives and families,” said Hatchett in an email. “I’m looking forward to being a part of the solution and working with the caring individuals that are a part of this group.”
The group is comprised of almost 30 members of varying backgrounds, including several veterans, a clergy person and Amy Hopkins, legislative assistant for state Rep. Pam Snyder’s office.
Hopkins learned about the program when she stopped into the Waynesburg VA office on an errand. Cipcic mentioned TWV, and Hopkins, who has lost more than one family member to suicide, determined to make time to participate in the program.
“The younger veterans are a harder target group to reach,” said Hopkins, who noted those veterans who fought in Desert Storm or the Global War on Terror don’t participate in the community the way their predecessors did. “I think it’s easier for them to isolate themselves and to close the doors on communications. It’s very easy to isolate yourself because of how rural (Greene County) is.”
Clark said he doesn’t believe in rushing to failure and wants this program – still in its team-building phase – to be veteran-led, offering real solutions to Greene County-specific issues facing veterans.
Most team members have already received suicide prevention training and Clark said he wants to spread the word that TWV is here, at no cost, for veterans in need. When the program officially launches next spring, Cipcic said she’d like to set up booths at local events including career fairs and at Rain Day. Eventually, Clark and Cipcic envision small support groups forming from connections made through TWV.
“(Together With Veterans) works because of the veterans in rural communities,” said Mohatt. “They’re the ones who are making the project sing.”
Said Cipcic: “We’re here to help you.”