According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the veteran suicide rate in Oregon is “significantly higher” than the national rates for both veterans and the general population.
One of the ways the VA attempts to lower those rates is by training veterans’ loved ones to recognize the signs of suicidal ideation and how to respond.
New research from the Portland VA Health Care System and Oregon Health & Science University found that social media outreach can help friends and family of veterans enroll in that training.
Dr. Alan Teo is the study’s lead author. He said loved ones are often “the first line of defense” when a veteran is experiencing thoughts of suicide.
“Veterans are most likely to share that with a family member or a loved one,” he said. “We would love for them to be able to get to the point of talking to folks like myself — a psychiatrist — but the reality is… there may be anxiety about accessing health care.”
The study used a variety of Facebook sponsored ads to recruit friends, family and caretakers of veterans, who were then asked to complete the VA’s free suicide prevention training module.
Teo said while it can be difficult to build trust online, digital platforms can help clinicians reach people who may be outside the traditional health care system.
“We were really trying to focus on this online component,” he said. “Like, can we get training out to people outside of the clinic? Meet people where they are — in their home, online, on social media?”
Teo said the next step is to measure the effectiveness of the VA’s training in a larger population. Now that researchers know they can recruit veterans’ loved ones online, he said they plan to quantify and track the skills those participants learn.
“How many times did they ask someone about the presence of suicidal thoughts? How many times were they worried about someone?” Teo said. “And if they were worried about someone having suicidal thoughts, a veteran in their lives, did they make a referral?”