By Katarina Fiorentino Klatzkow
Every year, millions of people grapple with mental illness or distress. Veterans and members of the armed forces face a higher risk of mental health challenges, including suicidal thoughts. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported that the suicide rate for veterans was 57% greater than that of non-veteran U.S. adults in 2020, with suicide as the second leading cause of death for veterans under the age of 45.
For Melanie Orejuela, a University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions Master of Public Health student, serving those who dedicate their lives to protecting our country is at the heart of her work.
Orejuela is pursuing her graduate degree with a concentration in social and behavioral sciences in conjunction with her full-time role as a research project coordinator at the Malcom Randall Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Gainesville. Her research aims to reduce health disparities and address gaps in suicide prevention resources for veterans, especially Latinx veterans living in rural areas.
In her role, Orejuela is responsible for coordinating and implementing different research projects. Currently, the V.A.’s number one priority is mental health and suicide prevention to combat increases in veteran suicide, Orejuela said.
Last month, Orejuela presented at the National Hispanic Science Network Conference on findings from a four-year-long research project led by V.A. research health scientist I. Magaly Freytes, Ph.D. and funded by the Office of Rural Health that culminates this year: a community suicide needs assessment tool to identify gaps in suicide prevention resources specifically for Hispanic veterans in rural communities. She hopes the tool will help V.A. suicide prevention efforts, especially for minority and Latinx veterans.
“The number of Hispanic veterans is growing, and unfortunately, so is the rate of suicides among this group,” Orejuela said. “But it’s a very understudied population. We’re trying to learn more about their health care needs, wants, and nuances; we’re trying to see from our findings if there is anything we’re missing. Hopefully, we can become a hub for rural, Hispanic veterans and their knowledge of mental health issues.”
In the development of the suicide prevention tool, the V.A. research team identified 16 indicators, such as internet access and social connectedness, as important in suicide prevention efforts. Corroborating these indicators with literature and stakeholder interviews, the team created instructions to go with each indicator, informing county-level data and helping end users, such as V.A. facilities across the country, to have landscape analyses of the counties and populations they serve.
“We had our tool tested with suicide prevention coordinators at the V.A. They gave us feedback, and we incorporated that feedback into the tool,” she said. “The tool also helps with communication across counties. We learned that in Monroe County, Florida, for instance, the V.A. was having transportation issues, which is one of our indicators, and they collaborated with Miami-Dade County to set up a transportation system for people.”
The long-term goal of the project and tool, says Orejuela, is improving suicide prevention efforts at the county level.
“A lot of the toolkits out there for suicide prevention are geared towards training providers at the individual level for suicide prevention,” she said. “We’re not looking at the individual level with our tool; we’re looking at the community level so we can reach the greatest number of people and have the largest possible impact.”