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Putting the Prevention in Suicide Prevention with Recreation Therapy

Veterans Pasqual Ramirez and Roger Reitan train for the National Veterans Golden Age Games.
Pasqual Ramirez (left), Army Veteran, trains for the javelin event at the National Veterans Golden Age Games. Roger Reitan (right), Navy Veteran, also trains for the Golden Age Games by using the bench press to increase his strength and endurance for the swimming and cycling events.

Sports and leisure recreation therapies help prevent suicide by reducing stress, connecting Veterans with other Veterans and with resources at VA and in the community. Recreation therapy also provides a physically and emotionally safe environment for them to work on their mind and body and get help.

Recreation therapists continually and compassionately check in with their Veterans on a regular basis to assess their physical and mental well-being, and encourage healthy behaviors such as setting goals, participating in new activities, and making friends. 

“For my mental health [in-patient] unit, both 2 south and 2 west, I work with them initially, talking to them for an assessment and then encouraging them to come to the groups,” said Bruce Garret, Recreation Therapist, West Los Angeles VA Medical Center. “When they come to the groups, I talk about the importance of recreation, the resources available, how to evaluate if your attitude is really low, and give them things that can support them.” 

Garret provides Veterans with books, magazines, board games, and art supplies, and encourages Veterans to share their stories with each other. 

“I try through the group discussion to ask other Veterans if they can relate to what someone is saying and draw them in and show them that they are not alone,” said Garret.

Paige Velasquez, a Recreation Therapist for the Veterans in outpatient mental health, leads a variety of activities such as equine therapy, fly fishing class, guitar jams sessions, golf, walking and jogging groups, and even virtual reality sessions. Setting goals, socializing, and getting out in nature, all contribute to an integrative approach that helps prevent Veterans from entering a crisis situation. 

“I think one thing that stuck out to me and in my studies is the word recreation, when you break it down, is re-creation. So, what you do in your downtime and your leisure really helps you recreate your life and who you are,” said Velasquez. “So, you know, we all have obligations, have to pay the bills, but outside of that, you deserve to enjoy your life to whatever ability that is, and just because you might have a disability doesn’t mean you don’t get to participate in fun life events.”

According to the CDC, physical activity can help support daily living activities and independence for people with disabilities and can also reduce depression and anxiety. 

Pasqual Ramirez, a Vietnam Army Veteran, trains with Velasquez and other Veterans all year to prepare for the National Veterans Golden Age Games, a national recreational therapy event for Veterans age 55 and older.

“For a long time I had anger issues, and I didn’t want to listen to people, and was very argumentative. But now I’m very calm, I feel relaxed and maybe it’s because it improved my health first of all,” said Ramirez. 

He enjoys power walking, weights, golf and yoga, and has been attending the games for 10 years. Ramirez has lost around 80 pounds since he started his journey 10 years ago. He is diabetic and his doctor took him off insulin six months ago. 

“I couldn’t be happier or healthier,” said Ramirez.

“We’re really trying to take those barriers down and show folks that there’s purpose in their life and that they do deserve to live, and they do deserve to enjoy their life,” said Velasquez. 

Trust can be one of those barriers. It can be hard for Veterans to open up about their mental health struggles, said Garrett. Also, Veterans may also not be aware of the wide range of resources available to them, so connecting them with people and programs is an important part of a prevention strategy for recreational therapy.

“I take it as a very big gift if they feel they can approach me when they see me in the hall or canteen and they say, ‘Bruce could you help me? I gotta find a place to live, or I’m just really upset. And I hook these folks up with the call center or the housing people. They trust me enough to tell me what they need,” said Garrett.

Roger Reitan, Navy Veteran, and 81 years young, also participates in the National Veterans Golden Age Games in swimming and cycling. He has been competing for over 20 years and enjoys the comradery from recreation therapy group workouts. He keeps his mind and body healthy by regularly using the treadmill and weight room with this fellow Veterans.

“My best friends are actually other Veterans, people I see everyday, my teammates and so on. It’s fun to be around people.”

Reitan considers Velasquez an active member of the team. 

“She’ll come by and monitor what you’re doing and provide recommendations and so on to help you, and that means a lot; someone’s looking out for you,” said Reitan.

For Veterans that are looking to participate in recreational therapies, please reach out to the 24/7 VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System Administrative Call Center at 877-251-7295 to schedule an appointment or request a recreation therapy consult with your primary care provider. For recreation therapy questions please reach out to Myisha Jones, Recreation Therapy Supervisor, at 310-478-3711 ext. 43578.

For more information on the National Veteran Games, please visit

If you are a Veteran in crisis or concerned about one, the 24/7 Veterans Crisis Line has caring and qualified responders available to listen and help, free for Veterans and their loved ones. You don’t have to be enrolled in VA benefits to connect with the Veterans Crisis Line. Dial 988, press 1 for Veterans or text 838255 or chat with responders at