JOHNSTOWN - Marine veteran Timothy Lawson said in the wake of actor and comedian Robin Williams' death, people have begun talking more about emotional disorders and suicide.
And that's OK.
"It's OK to talk about mental health issues. It's OK to let someone know" if you feel that way, he said.
Lawson's talk on suicide prevention to about 30 people at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena Wednesday morning kicked off a daylong symposium focusing on veterans issues including community outreach, programming and employment.
Lawson served five years in the Corps as a security guard protecting embassies in Algeria, Russia and Peru, before pursuing the "1, 2, Many: Veteran Suicide" project, interviewing veterans and family members to put faces on the statistics.
He said he's learned through his project that prevention starts before signs of trauma and depression show - and suggested friends, family and co-workers try to connect with veterans and make them realize how important they are.
More than half of the 22 veterans who commit suicide each day are over the age of 50. Some of them have lost purpose and consider suicide a way to unburden their loved ones. They need to know how much harder life would be for others if they were gone, he said.
There's no "one-stop shop" for combating the epidemic, he said, but some veterans find a connection through volunteering for organizations like Team Rubicon, a disaster relief group that responds to national and international crises.
Cambria County President Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder, a retired Air Force colonel, suggested religion also can provide meaning for life and said it's an underused tool to help veterans.
Tom Caulfield, director of Community Veterans Initiatives of Johnstown, said depression can manifest in many ways, some of them destructive: drug use, drinking and criminal activity among them.
He said Cambria County has the tools to handle these issues, including the recently formed Veterans Court, to give service members a second chance through rehabilitation and treatment.
Lawson said crime or abusive behavior can be an attempt to cope once enlisted men and women leave the military, which provides most basic needs like housing and food, camaraderie and purpose.
Many often feel guilty for leaving other soldiers behind once their service is done or feel like their lives don't measure up.
"I faced suicide before," he said.
He said he took a bottle full of pills and chased it with beer, hoping to fall asleep and never wake up. Luckily for him, it didn't work. But depression is a dark place to come back from, he said, and veterans - and people in general - need to know they are needed.
"They need to know this to be true before they get to that dark space," he said.