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

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.

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