In Utah, veterans are more vulnerable to suicide. One program hopes connecting veterans with each other will help save lives.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Veterans Peter Gray and Dakoda Antelope share a laugh while playing pickleball at Hogan Park in Bountiful, May 14, 2019.

Editor’s note: This story discusses suicide and recovery from depression. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

Blaine Anderson sat beneath a pavilion at a Woods Cross park on a recent morning, sweaty in his blue T-shirt that read, “Y’all need Jesus.”

About a dozen people, mostly veterans, swatted pickleballs on the nearby tennis court, occasionally hollering in victory or defeat. He’d just come from there; it was the first day he’d ever played the sport.

“And today, I had to force myself,” he said.

Just under two years ago, after his divorce, Anderson attempted suicide five times, he said. After that, he decided he must have a greater purpose, so he returned to church, moved back to Utah, where his family lives, and reached out for help from Veterans Affairs. That led him to Continue Mission, the nonprofit that had gathered members to play pickleball.

“I love it, and I want to do it again because I got to get out,” said Anderson, who was tired but feeling happy. “That’s my biggest thing. I’ll sit in my apartment. I’m content watching TV or reading a book or something. But that’s really not living.”

It’s well known that veterans are at greater risk of suicide than the general population. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the veteran suicide rate was 30.1 per 100,000, versus a national rate of 17.5.

But in Utah, where suicide rates are much higher than they are nationally, veterans are even more vulnerable: For every 100,000 veterans who returned from service to live in Utah, 43 died by suicide in 2016.

“What is it about Utah? What is it about the West that perhaps lends to these elevated suicide rates?” said Craig Bryan, executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah. “We don’t know. We don’t understand completely.”

Research by Bryan and others has shown that suicide prevention efforts for veterans and nonveterans alike may have been frustrated by similar misconceptions, Bryan said — particularly the belief that clinically diagnosed mental illness plays a larger role than it actually does.

The widely held assumption that suicide mostly afflicts war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder belies the real circumstances: “The majority of veterans and service members who die by suicide have not been in combat,” Bryan said.

“What has occurred in our society is, we focus so much on the war veteran, the combat veteran, there’s this large [population] of veterans who have not been deployed and get forgotten about,” Bryan said.

Similarly, for the nonveteran population, “We traditionally thought of suicide as being caused by mental illness,” Bryan said. But that ignores the “disproportionate” number of people who die by suicide without any known mental illness, he said.

That misconception might have put the focus too much on clinical mental health care as the only useful suicide prevention measure, both for veterans and for the whole population, Bryan said.

But thanks to military funding, veterans are now at the center of some of the most promising research into measures that people can do to help protect themselves and each other, regardless of diagnosis.

Groups like Continue Mission can be crucial to facilitating the smaller, daily changes that could save a life.

Continue Mission’s goal is to get veterans out of their homes and doing something with other people, but specifically other veterans. They go to movies together and museums, but also they take veterans for bike rides, kayaking excursions and ski and snowboarding trips.

Since the group started in 2014, they’ve served thousands of veterans and “support members” — family and friends — said Continue Mission founder Joshua Hansen. Last year alone, more than 2,600 participated in the group’s activities.

Gov. Gary Herbert approved a $7,500 grant for the group earlier this month from his Suicide Prevention Fund. The grants total $247,500, and went to groups that include the National Center for Veterans Studies, Davis Behavioral Health, Encircle, HOPE4UTAH, Utah Pride Center and others.

It’s not just a matter of getting people outside or connecting them with a supportive community, said Bryan, who is a board member for Continue Mission. Veterans may be more receptive to advice about suicide prevention when it’s coming from another veteran, he said.

For instance, having a gun at home is associated with a five-times greater risk of suicide, Bryan said — a factor that is especially prevalent in veteran populations. But the suicide risk associated with owning guns is drastically minimized if they are not kept unsecured in the house.

“An abundance of data shows locking up your guns, trigger locks, gun locks, gun safes, keeping guns unloaded — these simple things reduce suicide rates by 50 percent or more,” Bryan said.

Persuading someone to remove guns from their home while they’re under duress could save them, he said. Veterans groups can play a role in normalizing such protective measures, he said.

“They have members with PTSD, and they’ve been able to, through that group cohesion … sit down with a veteran and say, ‘You haven’t been sleeping. You’re going through a rough patch. Let me hang onto your guns for a moment, and when things get better, we’ll go back to where we were before,’” Bryan said. “A veteran trusts a fellow veteran.”

Anderson said what has helped him the most in his recovery is making connections with people — including his family, but also other veterans.

“They’ve experienced things that you’ve experienced, in a sense, and getting to know other veterans helps you get through [your experiences],” Anderson said. “You see if they can do it, I can do it.”

Hansen started Continue Mission seven years after he returned from two back-to-back tours overseas that ended when he was injured by an improvised explosive device, or IED, in 2007.

When he got back home, Hansen was scared to leave his house. He gained 50 pounds. He found that, left to its own devices, his mind turned to darker and darker thoughts. Losing a fellow soldier and close friend to suicide is what ultimately turned Hansen’s life around.

“Going to the funeral and you see how it affected his pregnant wife, his kids, his whole extended family around him,” Hansen said. “That was a wake-up call that this isn’t the answer.”

Hansen started getting professional help. He noticed, though, that what helped him the most was getting out and getting moving again. Seven years after he left the Army, he felt well enough to start helping others, and created Continue Mission.

Anderson said he’s gotten the support he needed, and he’s started to think about the future. Which, he said, is likely going to include more pickleball. He helps his mom and sees other other family members, he said, but this is different and it feels good.

“You know,” he said, “[I’m] just trying to find my way in life right now.”