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Suicide prevention forum aims to prevent unnecessary deaths

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Suicide prevention specialist Laura Kunstleben with the St. Cloud VA Health Care System talked Thursday, Aug. 23, to concerned members of the community about the rise in suicide among veterans in central Minnesota at the Brainerd VA clinic. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video2 / 2

The Brainerd Veterans Affairs Clinic hosted a veteran mental health and suicide awareness forum to help veterans, family members, friends and community partners save lives.

The free event Thursday, Aug. 23, was not limited to veterans but welcomed anyone interested in suicide prevention.

"The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) put out a report that deaths by suicide is up 25 percent nationally and 40 percent in Minnesota, so that's another reason why we're using this public health approach," said Laura Kunstleben, suicide prevention outreach specialist at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System.

Jeremy Maurstad is the acting director of mental health at the St. Cloud VA. Together with Kunstleben and others, they gave a suicide prevention presentation at the Brainerd VA.

"The community as a whole has experienced kind of an elevated rate of suicide over the last year or so, so this is just really our VA's effort to come in and support veterans and their families, and provide some resources to really try and head that off and make a difference here," he said.

Suicide awareness and prevention literature was available for the taking at Thursday's forum, including free firearm locks that may deter suicide by requiring a person to first unlock a firearm.

"We want people to know that the VA has tremendous resources for mental health services and substance abuse services," Maurstad said. "The veterans rate of successful suicide is higher than the civilian rate although the civilian rate is on a trajectory that's increasing all the time."

Signs of suicidal thinking to recognize include: hopelessness or helplessness; anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness or mood swings; feeling like there's no reason to live; rage or anger; engaging in risky activities without thinking; alcohol or drug abuse; and withdrawing from friends and family.

"It's estimated that about 10 million people a year attempt suicide, so every 35 seconds someone is attempting, and that's not including the people who are thinking about it who are not attempting or who have gone through with it," Kunstleben said as part of her presentation.

She said situational clues that someone may be considering suicide include scenarios such as being fired from a job or expelled from school; loss of any major relationship in a person's life like a death of a friend, spouse or child; or a diagnosis of a severe or terminal illness, she said.

"More than 43,000 people die by suicide every year in the U.S. It's our 10th-leading cause of death, so every 12.3 minutes someone dies by suicide—that's veterans and nonveterans," Kunstleben said.

Her tips for dealing with someone suspected of being suicidal is if in doubt, do not wait to talk to the person in question. If the person is reluctant, then be persistent. Talk to the person privately. Allow the person to talk freely. Have suicide prevention resources handy, such as the VA.

According to Kunstleben, men die by suicide four times more often than women, but women attempt suicide more. Gender disparity is partly attributed by the means in which suicide is attempted or done; men often use firearms, which are more effective than, say, sleeping pills.

"About 18 percent of all the deaths by suicide are veterans, and veterans are more likely to use firearms. The statistics show that about 50 percent of the people who die by suicide die using a firearm. For veterans, it goes up to 67 percent," she said.

"What is it about firearms? Well, we know veterans have learned to use firearms, which are highly lethal, fast and irreversible ... so we at the VA have been tasked to hand out these gun locks that have the (Veterans) Crisis Line number on them."

Veterans and their supporters were reminded by Maurstad and Kunstleben if warning signs are noticed, one should call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 (and press 1), chat online at or text 838255 for confidential support around the clock.

"The people who they've interviewed who have survived serious suicide attempts will tell you they only spent five minutes from the time they thought about it to when they tried it, so these (free) firearm locks should slow someone down," Kunstleben said.

"And a lot of times when people die by suicide, they're under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, and we know what that does to a person. It makes them unable to think clearly and makes them do things that they wouldn't do if they weren't under the influence."