Center of Excellence at the Canandaigua VA making strides in mission to prevent suicide

It’s no surprise that helping veterans find meaning in their lives after military service is crucial. Wounds of war, mental and physical, take their toll — not to mention separation from community and loved ones.

Last month, Gulf war veteran Ken Bardo of Phelps talked about the struggle. So did Vietnam veteran Gene Simes of Walworth. Both men have been in counseling for years, among other treatments, and expect they will need help for the rest of their lives.

“Sometimes we cry because it hurts,” said Simes.

What is surprising to some is how powerful a new treatment — based on an age-old philosophy that spirituality is good for you — could be in helping vets find meaning in their lives and thus help prevent veteran suicide.

For many veterans “self-image has just plummeted,” said Canandaigua VA Chaplain Robert Searle, who is behind a research study at the Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center. The study is about the effect of spiritual care on preventing suicide. Veterans feel guilt, they have “inner wounds,” Searle said. When a person is broken and bruised inside as many veterans are, they need to feel forgiveness and that their life has meaning, he said.

Last July, Veterans Affairs released its largest analysis of veteran suicide rates. VA found an average of 20 veterans died from suicide every day in 2014. The Center of Excellence at Canandaigua VA is one of a number of VA centers of excellence nationwide but the only center whose studies and research focus on suicide prevention. 

The study at Canandaigua involving the effect of spirituality was recently published in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine and Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy. While preliminary, an evaluation of the program is promising, according to Searle and others involved such as Dr. Marek S. Kopacz, a researcher with the Center of Excellence.

The concept of spiritual care contributing to mental health goes back a long time, said Kopacz. What makes this study significant is it’s a first step to looking at data, looking at the “before and after” to provide evidence, he said.

Searle said the study grew out of an approach he uses as chaplain with a centuries-old practice called lectio divina. It involves focused scripture reading (typically in the Judeo-Christian tradition) in small groups. As the reading is repeated, each veteran pinpoints one word that for him or her has special meaning and then talks about it.

“The word goes from head to heart,” said Searle.

The chaplain added that more and more veterans wanted to get involved in lectio divina. “There is an identity of self that goes beyond what we see,” said Seale. The program helps veterans find that identity and sense of purpose, he said. Veterans who have been in the program express relief, he said.

“Veterans come to me and say, ‘I feel loved, I feel forgiven,’” Searle said. “Now they can be in a relationship, with their community, with their family.”

While this first-of-its kind study on spirituality and veteran suicide prevention takes off, the Center of Excellence at the VA on Fort Hill Avenue is making strides in other ways as well.

In Building 37, a floor below the Veterans Crisis Line center where dispatchers take calls, there’s another call center — where VA employees call out. About 20 staffers work in the research call center focused on gathering information. Calls go out to veterans, family members and others who willingly offer insight and information used to improve communication, treatment and education pertaining to suicide prevention.

“We take a public health approach,” said Dr. Elizabeth Karras, a research investigator for the VA Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention. Also a senior clinical instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester, Karras talked about the partnership between the Center of Excellence and other institutions such as the University of Rochester and agencies including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research at the center targets risk factors, intervention and education. Research deals with everything from the effect of sleep on suicide prevention to the effect of prescription drugs and other factors.

 “We carry it all the way through,” said Stephanie Gamble, a research psychologist at the Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention. Gamble, also assistant professor of psychiatry (psychology) at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said the center touches all areas involved with suicide prevention. She and Karras called the center a “one-stop-shop” — with a most serious mission.

“Everybody sees the nature of the problem,” said Kopacz. “They see us as part of the solution.”

Need help?

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1

Text message: 838255