by Hannah Graber, Programs Coordinator
and Nadezh Mulholland, Programs Associate
Every September, organizations like the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and other mental health services use this month to spread the word about how people can advocate for changes in mental health care and seek care for themselves or loved ones.
While suicide can impact anyone, it can be difficult to know what to do when you are not a mental health professional. How can Elks help with suicide prevention among veterans? Building relationships may be the first step.
Loneliness is something many people feel at some point during their lives. But did you know that veterans have fewer people to turn to for support and are more likely to feel lonely? Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many veterans experienced loneliness, especially older veterans and those with disabilities. Once the pandemic began, feelings of isolation grew. Being lonely can make a big impact on our mental health. The VA reports that loneliness contributes to depression, alcohol abuse, and thoughts of suicide.
Veterans might need extra support to get
back to socializing the way they used to.
But for volunteers who serve veterans, there is a silver lining. Just as loneliness can harm mental health, human connection buoys veterans’ wellbeing. Sometimes, the greatest thing a volunteer can do is to simply be there and spend time with a veteran. Even small moments of connection can make a big difference.
Connecting with veterans is more important now than ever. The paradox of loneliness is that when people need connection most, they often feel least prepared to seek it out. Residents of Veterans Homes, where strict COVID precautions were implemented, might need extra support to get back to socializing the way they used to.
As you return to facilities, look for chances to connect with veterans. If you notice that a veteran you’ve spent time with in the past isn’t participating in activities, consider extending a personalized invitation to the next event to show them you care, or ask if the veteran is up for a one-on-one visit.
Over the years, Elks volunteers have found many ways to support the mental health of veterans. For example, last year, Middletown, Conn., Lodge No. 771 began hosting a weekly lunch along with kayaking for veterans with PTSD. The intention of the program is to provide a therapeutic activity and help address the risk of suicide within this group of veterans. Participants got to experience the rhythmic movement of the sport and spend time together out on the water.
Reflecting on the project, one Lodge member said, “It’s hard to describe the particular feeling, but it was clear that we were making a difference to our new Vet friends. It was interesting the way the Vets helped each other and we saw how they relaxed.”
Volunteers from Marion, Ill., Lodge No. 800 take veterans out for a day on the water.
Outdoor projects like kayaking are a great option when social distancing is required due to COVID. Many Lodges have also adapted to pandemic circumstances by providing Zoom accounts, iPads, and computers for isolated veterans to communicate with family and friends or hosting events like drive-through meals or baby showers. Elks have also partnered with other veterans’ organizations, VA, and state veterans’ homes to provide activities facilitated by staff members.
September is a great time to get creative
about connecting with veterans.
Elks from Brigantine, N.J., Lodge No. 2428 were not permitted to enter the Veterans Haven North facility where they volunteer due to COVID restrictions. They knew the residents were isolated and wanted to help relieve the stress and monotony of being away from family and other visitors, so they sponsored a barbeque cook-off. Veterans shared their cooking skills with each other and enjoyed the friendly competition and time to picnic.
Whether you are back to serving veterans in person, or still helping from a distance, September is a great time to get creative about connecting with veterans. Fostering opportunities to get together and talk about experiences is one way Elks can support veterans’ mental health during a difficult time. Visit VA’s website for more information about suicide prevention and mental health resources.