Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital hosted a Suicide Prevention Art Walk and Fair, on Sept. 8, to raise awareness of and prevent Veteran suicide.
Hundreds of Veterans, staff and community members attended the day-long event in suburban Chicago, which featured artwork created by Veterans that explored issues of self-harm, mental health and recovery. The event also shared resources for Veterans and families seeking help.
"This turned out better than any of us hoped for," said Ian Long, event co-organizer and a Master of Social Work Intern at Hines VA.
Long is a Navy Veteran. For him, the fair was personal. Like many Veterans, he's attempted and lost friends to suicide.
"I lost two friends in high school. I've lost five Sailors to suicide, and I've attempted suicide three times," he explained. "It's a struggle, but it's why suicide prevention is so important to me."
According to Long, mental health and feelings of self-harm affect everyone differently, but help is always available.
"When you're dealing with high intense emotions like that, you don't always know what to do. Sometimes you just need support from the community, a healthcare provider, you just need someone to talk to and listen, and it's there."
In 2019, the Veteran suicide rate was 52 percent higher than non-Veteran adults in the U.S., according to a Department of Veterans Affairs 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report.
Stressful life events like divorce, job loss, substance use or housing troubles among some Veterans can be risk factors for suicide, which past military experiences can heighten. These challenges can be compounded by a stigma around sharing problems with others and seeking help, the 2021 report noted.
Although the report highlighted a 7.2 percent overall drop in suicide rates among Veterans between 2018 and 2019, Hines VA staff still believe any Veteran suicide is too many and preventable.
"Suicide prevention is everyone's business," explained Anita Carmona Caravelli, event co-organizer and lead suicide prevention coordinator at Hines VA. "You don't have to be a suicide prevention coordinator or physiatrist to make a difference. You just have to be a human being who is willing to offer help to someone in need."
Carmona Caravelli explained that the art fair is about Veterans showing it's okay to express their emotions, good and bad, and that resources are available from the VA and other organizations.
Representatives from Hines VA services were on hand to share resources, including Mental Health, Intimate Partner Violence Assistance and Addiction Treatment, among others. Area nonprofits were also available, including comfort support animal organizations, therapeutic woodworking services and the Gary Sinise Foundation.
According to Carmona Caravelli, this was the first time her team was able to hold the event since 2019, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
"We're just so happy to be back," she explained. "When we first couldn't do it, we had so many inquiries from not only Veterans, but the staff. It broke my heart not being able to do it until now."
Navy Veteran Gary Slomczynski was among the artists who submitted to this year's event, displaying three small statues of the Grim Reaper and two attacking trolls.
"These are my emotions," he explained.
Slomczynski is a military sexual trauma and suicide attempt survivor receiving care through Hines VA. He uses art to help heal.
"Doing stuff like this puts me in a creative space instead of a destructive space," Slomczynski said. "It gives me something to do that's for me and keeps my mind going in the right direction."
Veterans seeking mental health support can call Hines VA Hospital Mental Health Services at 708-202-2803.
Veterans can also contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 988 and Press 1, to speak to be contacted to responders trained in crisis intervention and military culture. VA also offers additional information as part of their campaign, "Don't wait, Reach out," at www.va.gov/REACH.