When military veteran Ross Smith was struggling with suicidal ideation, what kept him alive were the people in his community who reached out to check on him and help him get the professional treatment he needed.

“I am grateful for my past and extremely grateful to be alive today,” said Smith, who has survived two suicide attempts and now serves as a national commander for American Veterans (AMVETS). “Honest and heartfelt questions can and will save lives.”

Smith and other leaders from veteran service organizations addressed the community at the Utah State Capitol on Tuesday as part of the group's suicide prevention tour across America.

A group of seven AMVETS members and two bus drivers launched their tour with a presentation in Sacramento on Monday. They will make stops in Denver, Kansas City and Cleveland this week before ending Sunday at Rolling to Remember, a motorcycle rally raising awareness for U.S. prisoners of war, those missing in action and veteran suicides.

During their Utah presentation, speakers urged local veterans, and also their families and community members, to engage in helping America's veterans get access to treatment and other mental health resources.

Mental health and suicide are subjects that need to be confronted "head-on," Smith said.

“You and I have a great responsibility to the defenders of this nation, both past and present,” Smith said. “We must never become complacent as we take care of those who stood guard for our freedoms that you and I enjoy every day.”

Data from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs shows the suicide rate for veterans was 57.3% greater than for non-veterans in 2020. That same year, suicide was the 13th leading cause of death among veterans, and the second-highest cause of death for veterans under the age of 45.

“Our veterans are killing themselves every day in isolation,” said Lisa Roybal, chairwoman of the California AMVETS Suicide Awareness and Prevention Committee.

Lisa Roybal, AMVETS Suicide Awareness and Prevention Committee chair, speaks during a press conference to raise awareness about veteran mental health and suicide prevention outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. AMVETS ONE volunteers are visiting six cities on their advocacy tour.
Lisa Roybal, AMVETS Suicide Awareness and Prevention Committee chair, speaks during a press conference to raise awareness about veteran mental health and suicide prevention outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. AMVETS ONE volunteers are visiting six cities on their advocacy tour. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

She asked community members to help reduce stigma for veterans by talking about mental illness and increasing literacy around mental health issues.

She shared the acronym SAVE, which she said can be used to help prevent suicide:

  • Signs of suicide like anxiety, hopelessness, or abusing drugs or alcohol.
  • Ask if they are thinking about suicide.
  • Validate their experiences.
  • Encourage them to seek treatment.

“Suicide can be prevented through meaningful connections, one person at a time,” Roybal said. “Well-coordinated responses are needed not just from our veteran communities, but from our civilian communities as well, because community is the first line of defense.”

She also encouraged veterans to call the national suicide hotline at 988, then press 1 for veterans.

Cory Pearson, director of veterans services at Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs, encouraged Utah veterans to take advantage of resources on the department's websites. Resources include mental health information, access to health care benefits and the Governor's Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans and their Families.

“Veteran or not, you should always look around to make sure that your fellow man or woman is doing OK,” Smith said. “That's what makes this world a better place.”

Suicide prevention resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call 988 to connect with the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Crisis Hotlines

  • Huntsman Mental Health Institute Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
  • SafeUT Crisis Line: 833-372-3388
  • 988 Suicide and Crisis LifeLine at 988
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386

Online resources