It's tough enough being a military veteran with memories of war still
racing around inside your head, but it can get bleaker when the current
conflict charges into your living room through the television set.
When Thomas Berger, Ph.D., senior analyst of veterans' benefits and
mental health issues for the Vietnam Veterans of America, heard that a
documentary about an emergency room in Iraq was scheduled to appear, he called
Janet Kemp, R.N., Ph.D., national suicide-prevention coordinator for the U.S.
Department of Veterans Affairs. Kemp made sure that the VA Suicide Prevention
Hotline had extra staff on hand on the nights the program was aired.
In its first 13 months of operation, through August, the Suicide Prevention
Hotline fielded more than 69,000 calls, of which more than 32,000 identified
themselves as veterans, their family members, or friends, Kemp told members of
the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health in September. Another 789
calls came from active-duty military personnel who were eventually referred to
Department of Defense sources of care. The other calls came from non-veterans
or persons who did not disclose their status.
The two biggest groups of callers who stated their era of military service
were veterans of the current conflicts or the Vietnam War.
The system referred 5,980 calls to suicide-prevention coordinators at VA
medical facilities around the country. The call system led to 1,628"
rescues," events in which a caller is in imminent crisis, and
police or ambulance services are sent to the caller's address.
The hotline is based in upstate New York, near the Canandaigua Center of
Excellence for Suicide Prevention. The VA call-in system uses the federal
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National
Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK, but prompts veterans to"
press 1" to reach one of six phone lines staffed around the clock
by nurses, social workers, or psychologists who have been specially trained as
responders, she said.
The VA is taking steps to increase awareness of the hotline, Kemp said in
response to a question from subcommittee Chair Michael Michaud (D-Maine).
In June, VA Secretary James Peake over-turned a ban on paid advertising to
support the hotline, but the VA is still developing a request for proposal for
advertising services and measurements.
A pilot program in the Washington, D.C., area used advertisements in buses,
subway stations, and subway cars to inform veterans about help available
through the VA's suicide hotline.
The campaign led to doubling the number of calls from the region, and radio
announcements have been effective in rural areas, Kent said. "But it
will take a lot of different methods to reach a lot of different segments of
Call-center personnel in Canandaigua ask the callers for permission to look
at their VA medical records and see if the caller is enrolled in the VA, she
Once or twice a day, all the lines are in use, so the call center can
switch additional incoming calls to overflow call centers with staff trained
to handle calls from veterans.
An average of 18 veterans commit suicide every day, noted Kemp. The
Department of Veterans Affairs convened a panel on suicide prevention during
the summer. Among other points, the panel recommended that the VA design a
study to identify suicide risk among veterans, improve suicidality screening
for veterans with depression or posttraumatic stress disorder, apply
evidence-based research to the choice of treatments, and increase research
about suicide prevention.
In his testimony to the subcommittee, Berger praised the VA's
hotline—especially "in the absence of any yet implemented VA
national suicide surveillance plan or program"—but said that the
hotline could do more to track the daily number of calls, collect clinical
information (such as prior suicide attempts) and combat status during the
call, and employ a tracking system to follow up with callers.
In related news, the U.S. Army announced that 62 soldiers had committed
suicide through August. The service was investigating 31 deaths as possible
suicides. There were a total of 115 suicides in 2007 and 102 in 2006,
according to data previously released by the Army.
Concerned about the rising numbers, the Army Surgeon General's office
announced expansion of its suicide prevention programs, moving from education
and awareness efforts to training soldiers and their families to"
actively intervene" when signs of suicide appear.