Combat Veteran Coaches Therapists In Best Ways To Help Vets At Risk Of Suicide : Shots - Health News The VA is now training counselors in how to better understand and bring up guns and gun safety without alienating clients who are combat veterans.

Veteran Teaches Therapists How To Talk About Gun Safety When Suicide's A Risk

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People who want to kill themselves often reach for a gun. That's especially true with military veterans. Guns play a role in about two thirds of suicides committed by vets. Often, therapists who work with vets aren't familiar enough with firearms to talk about them. KQED's April Dembosky introduces us to a veteran who's trying to change that.

APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: Jay Zimmerman got his first BB gun when he was 7, his first shotgun when he was 10.

JAY ZIMMERMAN: Growing up in Appalachia, you know, you look forward to getting your first firearm probably more so than your first car.

DEMBOSKY: His grandfather taught him to hunt squirrel and quail. Zimmerman says pretty much everyone he knows has a gun.

ZIMMERMAN: When I went into the military, that culture was reinforced. Your weapon is almost another appendage. It's part of who you are.

DEMBOSKY: Zimmerman was a medic in the Army in Bosnia and the Middle East in the late '90s and early 2000s. He struggled with depression. In 2012, his best friend killed himself, the guy who saved his life in a combat zone. Zimmerman figured his time was up, too.

ZIMMERMAN: I had devised my own exit strategy for 16 February of 2013.

DEMBOSKY: But then he bumped into a woman who used to ride the same school bus when they were kids, and his exit date came and went. They're married now.

ZIMMERMAN: Where I'm from, as they say, the rest is gravy.

DEMBOSKY: But Zimmerman still gets down. He's learned to ask for help and to help others. He's a peer counselor at the VA now. He tells vets when he's not doing well, he calls his friends.

ZIMMERMAN: If I call them and say, you know, look; I'm feeling like it's not safe for me to have the firearms in my home. Can you store them for me for a couple days till I feel like I'm OK to have them back?

DEMBOSKY: Suicides are usually impulsive acts, and people who choose to end their lives with a gun are much more likely to succeed. That's why during his presidency, Barack Obama ordered the VA to talk to vets about gun safety. But here's the trouble. A lot of therapists aren't gun people. They don't know how to talk about guns.

MEGAN MCCARTHY: How many of you would say you feel really comfortable having a conversation about limiting access to all lethal means?

DEMBOSKY: VA psychologist Megan McCarthy asked this question to a roomful of therapists in San Francisco. Hardly anyone raises a hand.

MCCARTHY: That's why we're here today.

DEMBOSKY: McCarthy and Jay Zimmerman are part of the program at this daylong conference where one of the themes is, if you're going to give advice about guns, you need to know something about guns. One way to bridge the cultural divide - go to a shooting range. Take a lesson. Learn the difference between a Glock and a .22.

MCCARTHY: We often conceive of ourselves as experts and as people who impart information to patients. We need to learn how to talk with veterans.

DEMBOSKY: Then McCarthy brings up a case study about a 28-year-old Iraqi Army veteran. He told his VA psychiatrist he had a fight with his girlfriend.

MCCARTHY: He drove to an empty parking lot and sat with his loaded handgun in his lap intending to kill himself.

DEMBOSKY: He didn't do it, but a week later, he still didn't want to talk about suicide or storing his gun.

MCCARTHY: Does anybody have any thoughts?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I would want to see this individual within the same week.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Or and say, would you just be willing to talk more about that?

DEMBOSKY: Jay Zimmerman stands up and offers a different perspective.

ZIMMERMAN: Chances are the reason he's not talking to you is he's afraid he's going to lose his gun that he carries pretty much all the time.

DEMBOSKY: He says a lot of vets would rather confide in a fellow vet, and that's an unusual takeaway for the clinicians at the conference. Sometimes their role is not to intervene at all but to be a facilitator, to make sure vets have someone to talk to outside the therapy office. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in San Francisco.

SIEGEL: And that story is part of a reporting partnership of NPR, KQED and Kaiser Health News.


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