In 2021, there were 519 suicide deaths of service members in the military in the United States (1). Chaplains can provide a key role in preventing suicide for military members and the general population. While many factors may contribute to one having suicidal thoughts, “religion plays a protective role against suicide in a majority of settings where suicide research is conducted” (2). Chaplains help patients discover their greater purpose in life and are often the first responders when someone comes into a healthcare facility.
All VA Medical Centers (VAMCs) staff clinical chaplains provide spiritual and pastoral care services when the Veteran requests. The health benefits package offered to Veterans must include spiritual and pastoral care when requested by the patient (3). Chaplains in VAMCs often work with Veterans who are considered at-risk; this makes up about 10% of their patient population (3). The services that VA chaplains provide are meant to uncover the meaning and purpose in one’s relationships with self, others, ideas, nature, and, when relevant for the Veteran, with a higher power, benevolent deity, or God. Trying to find those bits of self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-care, and love shows that the Veteran still sees some reason to live, which is important to recognize.
According to Baker, “The Department of Veterans Affairs health clinics now ask as part of the regular veteran physical. ‘Are you have any suicidal thoughts right now?'” (2). This is something chaplains regularly asked the Veterans, and asking that question can save their life. The idea behind asking this question is to allow the Veteran to feel supported in an environment where the type of care is personal, and it makes the Veteran process how they are doing internally.
Another way that chaplains in the VA Healthcare System help Veterans during suicidal times is by doing “life reviews” with them. Life review is “the process of facilitation of the life review experience or mental process of reviewing one’s life” (3). It allows the Veteran to narrate their own life like an autobiography and have a sense of hope, meaning, and healing. Chaplains are part of a medical team of doctors, nurses, and counselors. In collaboration with other healthcare providers, clinical chaplains can offer an added degree of support to at-risk Veterans in times of crisis, distress, and hopelessness.
Author: Jose Serna