136 Wisconsin veterans commit suicide each year, new report shows
When Sgt. Brandon Ketchum drove to the Iowa City VA Medical Center on July 7, 2016, he thought he would receiving help for his ongoing struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“He had relapsed and was abusing drugs and he just was in a bad place,” said Kristine Nichols, Ketchum’s girlfriend of three years who lived with him and their daughter in Davenport, Iowa.
According to Nichols, Ketchum’s struggles with PTSD had caused him to seek relief from substances — first from prescription painkillers and later from heroin.
“He had asked me if I thought he should get inpatient (treatment) and I told him, you know, if he felt that he needed to,” Nichols told WKOW News in Madison, Wis.
As a result, Ketchum drove over an hour to the Iowa City VA Medical Center, where he had been seeing the same psychiatrist for over a year.
When he asked to be admitted to the psychiatric ward, due to what he called “serious mental issues,” his psychiatrist refused.
“It wasn’t like a new person. [The psychiatrist] knows Brandon’s history, he knew he was flagged for suicide with the VA,” said Nichols. “At least two occasions in the past three years, he’s been flagged for suicide.”
The reasons for Ketchum being denied admittance remain unclear. A public affairs officer for the Iowa VA Medical Center has said they cannot comment on Ketchum’s case due to privacy laws.
Ketchum expressed his anger in a Facebook post shortly thereafter.
“I requested that I get admitted to 9W (psych ward) and get things straightened out. I truly felt my safety and health were in jeopardy, as I discussed with the doc. Not only did I get a ‘NO’, but three reasons of no based on me being not fucked up enough,” he wrote. “At this point I say, ‘why even try anymore?’ They gave up on me, so why shouldn’t I give up on myself? Right now, that is the only viable option given my circumstances and frame of mind.”
Ketchum took his life one day after being denied admittance to the hospital, on July 8, 2016.
While Ketchum’s demise occurred in Iowa, he was a native of Sauk County, Wis., graduating from Wisconsin Dells High School in 2001. His story as a veteran from Wisconsin is a disturbingly common one.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Veteran Affairs, veterans comprised 18 percent of all suicides in Wisconsin in 2014. That is 136 veterans who committed suicide that year.
In order to combat these figures, the DVA recently announced a new initiative called “Question Persuade Refer,” or QPA. The program involves training people to understand signs of suicide in veterans and get them the proper help and treatment.
The initiative will specifically target people who work closely with veterans like their family members, nursing home and veteran’s hospital employees, said DVA spokesperson Bill Clausius said. People can undergo a 90-minute training to learn QPR and will then possess some basic understanding of how to identify veterans in need of assistance.
“We want to get people aware of what’s going on so that we have more of an understanding in removing the stigma associated with suicide,” Clausius said.
Clausis said suicide rates were highest among veterans aged between 18 and 29 in 2014. There are currently over 400,000 veterans living in Wisconsin.
Suicide is a large issue in the state of Wisconsin. The youth suicide rate in Wisconsin is nearly a third higher than the national rate, with 247 children between the ages of 10 and 17 committing suicide from 2004 through 2013. Similarly, a 2016 report from Mental Health America found that Wisconsin children have the second highest prevalence of major depressive episodes.
The QPR initiative’s long term goal is reduce veteran suicides in Wisconsin to zero. But the program is built on the premise that veterans will be provided the treatment they need before and during periods of crisis.
Beverly Kittoe, Ketchum’s mother, is hoping legislators and advocates continue to try and solve the issues that have caused so many to suffer even when they seek help, including her son.
“If he was asking for help and if he had been there,” she said, “if he had gotten their help before, why, why was he turned away?”