East Lyme forum focuses on mental health, suicide prevention among veterans, law enforcement

East Lyme — Speakers at a community forum Thursday evening on mental health and suicide prevention among veterans and law enforcement personnel stressed the need to listen to others and fight the stigma around asking for help. 

U.S. Army veteran Doug Capazzi told the audience a story of an unidentified veteran who served in Kuwait and Iraq and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and adjustment disorder, which took its toll. One night, he came close to becoming part of the statistic that about 20 veterans die by suicide each day. But an unexpected call from his younger brother, who wanted to talk about something he had said, saved him.

After telling this story, Capazzi told the audience he'd like to introduce the "man in the hood" as himself. 

Capazzi, president of the Guardians of the Purple Heart, a nonprofit organization that assists veterans, said he shares his struggles as an "olive branch" to show others in need that they are not alone. He said that before he would hide what he was going through and was ashamed of his diagnosis, but he now wears it as a "badge of courage" that he weathered the storm. 

He was one of three panelists at a community forum held at East Lyme High School by The Brian Dagle Foundation Inc., along with the East Lyme Youth Services Bureau and the East Lyme Youth Coalition. This year, the forum focused on mental health and suicide prevention among veterans and law enforcement personnel.

Capazzi told audience members that we typically "listen with the intent to respond and not with the intent to understand," and encouraged them to invest time to take suicide-prevention training to understand the "red flags" in everyday conversations that are a hidden cry for help.

"Take the time to listen," he added. "Take the time to be a mentor or caregiver for a veteran. Even if they just want to talk about the weather, you just might be that ray of sunshine on their cloudy day."

Kurt Palmer, a graduate of East Lyme High School who works with the national Veterans Crisis Hotline, said that 18 percent of all suicides by adults in the U.S. are veterans.

In sharing his work with the hotline, he stressed the importance of connectedness. He encouraged people to not be afraid to reach out to people who exhibit warning signs, and ask them about their well-being.

David Cruickshank, chief executive officer of the Law Enforcement Research Group, said the organization is working to tackle issues of organizational stress that police officers face. He said it's been found that 80 percent of the stress officers face over their careers is organizational stress, for example the officers' relationship to their boss or whether or not they like their schedules, while the operational stress of seeing traumatic things on calls accounts for 20 percent.  

He said that officers and people in general tend to be good at dealing with traumatic things they see, but the organizational stress "compounds and adds a tremendous amount of stress to an officers' overall stress level."

"That combined with some operational stress makes it harder to fight PTSD and harder for those incidents to defuse inside an officer's brain," he said.

Thursday's event was the fifth annual forum on suicide awareness and prevention in East Lyme.

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and First Selectman Mark Nickerson praised the Dagle family for helping others heal and starting a conversation about suicide awareness and prevention.

The Dagle family began the foundation in memory of their 19-year-old son, Brian Dagle who died by suicide in 2011. The foundation's mission is to "offer hope and healing for those grieving the loss of someone special or struggling with the challenges of life by providing support services and resources in the Southeastern Connecticut Community." The foundation also focuses on suicide awareness and prevention. 

Responding to an audience member's story during the forum, Paul Dagle emphasized that the stigma around asking for help "is what we need to eliminate."

k.drelich@theday.com

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