The Department of Veterans Affairs reports it is poised to support veterans in its care but researchers continue to focus on new and innovative treatment options for its warriors. Lisham (Lee) Ashrafioun has been with the VA for over nine years and is an investigator with the agency. His focus is non pharmaceutical pain management options as well as alternative treatment options for substance use disorder. Within his research is the constant focus on how to prevent suicide and social isolation.
“My grandfather served in the Air Force, I have a cousin in the Coast Guard and now I have another cousin who will be joining the Air Force” he shared. “I’ve always wanted to find a way to give back to the military community all the way back even when I was a clinical psychology intern.”
After his internship was over, Ashrafioun knew what he wanted to do. It was through his research on suicide prevention the realization that the impact of social isolation has on suicide came to light.
“I've come across this underlying current of social isolation and loneliness with people who have substance use disorders and people with chronic pain. These are people who are at risk of suicide among a variety of other issues,” he explained. “This sort of led us into trying to help address social isolation and loneliness as well.”
The Center for Disease Control lists loneliness as a risk factor for suicide as does the American Psychological Association and now, the VA has it as well.
“I feel like COVID really shifted things but truly we began researching the implications of loneliness before the pandemic. Going through it accelerated it quite a bit,” Ashrafioun said. “What we found is that by reaching out to those socially isolated people and helping them rediscover some of those skills led to more of a willingness to seek treatment.”
A sense of belonging can be a protective factor in suicide prevention, the Mayo Clinic states.
As for how the VA intends to target social isolation to lower suicide numbers, it starts with the recommendation of individualized therapy sessions. “Those therapists will work with the veteran to identify the things they can do and participate in and they’ll be able to recommend outside resources,” he explained. “Within the VA there’s a real opportunity for us to engage in research which develops into an actual intervention we can test. If it works we can immediately plug it into our clinics.”
He went on to explain that while a lot of research projects may get funded, many fizzle out without ever being implemented. The VA, however, looks for success within the research and quickly works to implement it as a tool within the clinics for veterans in need.
“Our hope is that we want to be able to address loneliness and social isolation, more directly, which we feel like our interventions can help do that. We think it sort of underlies all these other issues as well,” Ashrafioun shared. “If we're able to address the isolation and loneliness, then we also think it can maybe help improve their functioning related to chronic pain issues that they're having. We hope that it can reduce some of their substance use, alleviate some depression and anxiety.”
When the term “research” is used, many of us may envision a sterile lab filled with people wearing white coats and pocket protectors. It may be easy to picture them as somewhat aloof and removed. But when it comes to the research to treat veterans, the people behind it all are human beings with a passion to serve those who wore the uniform.
“I’m human just like everyone else,” Ashrafioun explained. “There are so many mental health and physical health issues our veterans have from service or following their service. This is my way of giving back to them.”
To learn more about how the VA and its Office of Research and Development, click here.