CEO Heather Ehle Responds to New VA Suicide Report

The VA report released on September 26th, 2018, underestimates the magnitude of the suicide crisis. Those of us in the field know this to be true and we won’t be shocked when the numbers rise again next year.  We should all remember that these are not just  “numbers.” These are warriors who all have families that are living with the hell of believing that they did not do enough.

September 27th marks the eleventh anniversary of the beginning of Project Sanctuary.  Being a RN and recognizing that our military families were not getting the support and services they needed nor deserved, I founded a nonprofit to make a difference where I saw none being made.  Often, I have felt like Project Sanctuary was alone on an island by focusing on the family and mental health, which was not a popular trend.

What I can tell you now is that the suicide epidemic is worse than what is being reported. Veterans are going to funerals and mourning the loss of their battle buddies five and ten times a year. Spouses and caregivers are attempting to end their lives, their teens are attempting, and it may seem that there is little attention being paid or help being offered. Our warriors and their families have been the ones alone on an island, needing help and not getting it.

But a few organizations are determined to help these families, and Project Sanctuary is at the forefront nationally. Our numbers and data prove that when our at-risk military families from all over the country are given the chance and the tools through our program to reconnect with themselves, then their families, then their communities… they thrive.  They report feeling better able to cope, confident in gaining resiliency tools to handle life’s challenges, and have an improved sense of community.  And their families, their biggest source of support, report the same.

We cannot do this in just six days, but we can do this through establishing hope and rebuilding relationships followed by two years of dedicated, human-centric case management.  We meet each family at their level of need.  Every veteran and every family is unique, and only a personalized approach to supporting these families will work.  We know this because consistently when our families leave our retreats ready to progress to follow-up services, they score themselves 4.6 out of 5 when asked if they have gained tools for resiliency in handling challenges in life.  We know this because in eleven years of supporting more than 4,800 military family members, only two have committed suicide.  90% of our graduate military couples are still married, and all who wish to work are employed.

After eleven years of standing on that island and screaming “what about mental health, what about the family??” we finally feel like there is hope. Project Sanctuary changes the way military families heal, by focusing on connectedness, mental health support and teaching the tools veterans and their families need to thrive. And now, we are not alone.

The focus on supporting the entire military family is spreading, as Cohen Veteran Network reports that by a small majority, their mental health services are utilized by family members more than the veteran.  Families and mental health are being highlighted and discussed in the national arena.

A recently released research survey on connectedness was a home run.  Yes, this is what we have been practicing and sharing.  Read the research here on our Project Sanctuary website entitled “PTSD in U.S. Veterans: The Role of Social Connectedness, Combat Experience and Discharge.”

Another national group that understands and embraces connections and personal relationship is Vets4Warriors.  They operate a call center, staffed by veterans, for veterans and their families. Their tag line is “Discover the Power of Connection.”  These are just a few of the organizations making a huge and lasting difference.

Connectedness. People.  Relationships.  That is how we will begin to stem the tide of the suicide crisis.  Project Sanctuary cannot do this alone, but with the collaboration and connections of like minded not-for-profits, communities, and supporters, we know that we can continue to provide the hope and tools that our military families need to stop the suicide epidemic.