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Veteran details how he worked through suicidal thoughts

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    LANCASTER COUNTY, PA (WPMT) — “It was really, really hard and scary,” said James Stafford, a veteran.

James Stafford spent about two years serving with the Army National Guard on the ground in Kosovo and Iraq. He did not know the internal battle he would face after he came home.

“I had a lot of denial personally. I felt like I could come back and be James,” explained Stafford.

“I played football in high school, football in college, and always tried to be physically fit, and for me, that right there also affected my mental,” explained Stafford. “There are days where it is very difficult for me to stand up straight.”

He struggled with suicidal thoughts.

“It may have been four months where I hadn’t spoken with anyone,” said Stafford.

Then, an Army National Guard Chaplain knocked at Stafford’s door to see how he was doing.

“He was like, ‘hey what are you doing?’ and I was like, ‘nothing,'” explained Stafford. “Looking back on that it was like a ‘nothing’ with all caps, exclamation points.”

Their conversation led Stafford to confront his mental health struggles.

“I was in a mental health program,” explained Stafford. “I sought help professionally. I was on medication. I was in a psych ward for two weeks, and to say that at first, ‘crazy people are there’ — I’ve never met more normal people in my life.”

“We have learned so much from people like James,” said Rick Hamp, the team lead for Governor Wolf’s challenge to prevent suicide among service members, veterans, and their families. “There is a stigma attached to suicide, and we got to do something to reduce that stigma.”

According to national data, veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. Hamp believes that number will likely be higher this year because of COVID-19 – and the difficulties it has created. However, he says there is not enough data to say definitively.

“The best thing we can do is education, increase awareness, and get people to feel safe talking about their experiences,” said Hamp.

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