Twenty-two a day. That’s the number of veteran suicides being recognized by the Student Veterans Organization through its 16-day flag campaign.
The flags are placed each day across the Wichita State campus in order to bring attention to the issue and commemorate service members who have taken their own lives.
On Friday, the Suicide Awareness Summit took place outside Grace Wilkie Hall. Active duty and veteran service members gathered to candidly speak about suicide — including discussions of self-harm, intrusive thoughts, depression and stuborness, which has been cited as one contributing factor to this epidemic.
“We are stubborn. It’s what makes us great at our jobs,” said keynote speaker Master Sergeant Alex Boyd. “It really drives us in our passion and why we stick around to do the work that we do.”
Stubbornness also complicates things, Boyd said.
“Ninety-eight percent of people are able to notice signs where they need to reach out to help somebody, so that’s what we focus on — specifically related to risk factors,” she said. “When we talk about risk factors, we really normalize those life stresses, financial issues, work stresses — all of those things that make life complicated.”
Boyd said the longer those issues go unchecked and unexamined, the easier it is for stress to reach a threshold.
Warning signs are a manifestation of that mounting stress and should not be ignored, she said, even though innate stubbornness can be an asset in other aspects of a service members’ lives.
“It first started with [Student Body Vice President] Michael Bearth here wanting to do flags — just plant 22 flags on Veterans Day to represent the suicide awareness that happens amongst the veteran community each day,” said SVO president Levi Schenk.
During that conversation, Schenk said, another veteran chimed in to say that the suicide rate among active duty had risen this year. They all spent some time brainstorming the best way to address this trend.
“It morphed into what you see today,” Schnek said.
The flags were donated by VFW Post 12157 in South Hutchinson and the Military and Veterans Services. Patty Gnefkow with the Veteran Providers’ Coalition of Sedgwick County provided the dog tags and information cards attached to the flags.
On Monday, Veterans Day, the flag campaign will come to an end. But members of the SVO said the hope is that the day-to-day awareness will continue to grow and that people will seek help when they need it. Even when doing so is uncomfortable.
Boyd said one way to make navigating that situation easier is for service members and their friends and families to normalize tough conversations about mental health before they become a matter of life and death.