Veterans Crisis Line Offers Needed Support
By Stuart Nelson
VA has extended its outreach directly to veterans and their families, VSOs, community-based organizations, and local health care providers in an effort to assure them that support is available whenever, if ever, they need it.
The REACH-VET program, begun this fall, seeks to enhance veteran care by using data to identify veterans at high risk for suicide, notifying VA providers of the risk assessment and allowing providers to reevaluate and enhance the care of such veterans.
As part of this outreach, the Fleet Reserve Association and BVA jointly hosted an information session on October 21 with Caitlin Thompson, VA’s National Mental Health Director of Suicide Prevention and Community Engagement. Dr. Thompson is responsible for policy development and provider/patient education in the areas of suicide awareness and prevention, implementing assessment and treatment strategies and the dissemination of new findings in the area of suicide throughout the VA system and broader community.
Between 2001 and 2014, the age-adjusted rate of suicide in the U.S. adult civilian population increased by 23 percent overall. For veterans, that rate increase was 32.2 percent. Broken down, the percentage increase for male veterans was 30.5 percent and 85.2 percent for females. Some 65 percent of veteran suicides in 2014 were among people age 50 or older and 67 percent occurred as a result of a firearm injury.
Perhaps equally significant in the research conducted are the suicide rates among those who used VA services. Only 8.8 percent of the suicides from 2001 to 2014 were committed by those who used VA services, 11 percent male and 4.6 percent of the females.
Responding to what appears to be an overwhelmingly positive impact of its services on the emotional well-being of veterans, Dr. Thompson emphasized VA’s role in leading the way in improving programs and expanding the veteran network of support. Such improvements will be accomplished by meeting urgent mental health needs with same-day evaluations, leveraging partnerships to raise awareness of life-saving resources, particularly with the Department of Defense to support the transition to life after service, and implementing a data-driven approach to identify veterans at high risk for suicide.
Friends and family members of veterans should learn to recognize these warning signs: 1) hopelessness or feeling like there’s no way out, 2) anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness, or mood swings, 3) feeling like there is no reason to live, 4) rage or anger, 5) engaging in risky activities without thinking, 6) increasing alcohol or drug abuse, and 7) withdrawing from family and friends.
Additional signs such as the following require immediate attention: 1) thinking about hurting or killing oneself, 2) looking for ways to do so, 3) talking about death, dying, or suicide, and 4) self-destructive behavior such as drug abuse, weapons, etc.
“VA recognizes that suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility and is now a top VA priority,” she said at the beginning of the session.
Dr. Thompson also mentioned the numerous suicide prevention resources to promote veterans’ mental health and wellness that are integrated throughout the VA system. These include specialty inpatient and outpatient mental health services at VA Medical Centers and community-based outpatient clinics; Vet Centers that provide a range of counseling, outreach, and referral services; a free and confidential “coaching” service that helps veterans’ family members and friends connect with local resources; an online Toolkit that enables clinicians to easily access information and tools for treating veteran patients with various mental health conditions; and PTSD support; and an online tool, discussed below as Make the Connection, that features true stories from real veterans, informing them and their families, friends, and members of their communities about resources designed to help veterans live well. A major area of emphasis is the Veterans Crisis Line, a toll-free, confidential resource that connects veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring VA responders. Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. They can also chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net or send a text message to 838255 to receive free, confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year, even if they are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care.
Formerly known from 2007 until 2011 as the National Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline, the Veterans Crisis Line is there to encourage veterans, and those around them who may be the first to realize that they are in emotional distress, to reach out for support when issues reach a crisis point, even if it is not a suicidal crisis.
The responders at the Veterans Crisis Line are specially trained and experienced in helping veterans of all ages and circumstances—from veterans coping with mental health issues that were never addressed to recent veterans struggling with relationships or the transition back to civilian life. They provide support when such issues and others—such as chronic pain, anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, anger, and even homelessness—reach a crisis point. Many of the responders are veterans themselves and understand what they and their families and friends have been through.
For additional information and available materials, visit VeteransCrisisLine.net. Additional resources and perspectives are available at www.MakeTheConnection.net. Powerful personal stories and testimonials from veterans of all service eras, genders, and backgrounds are at the heart of Make the Connection.
The site illustrates how veterans and their families face and overcome issues and challenges through narratives that provide compelling examples of the positive outcomes for treatment and recovery, and of the numerous diverse paths that can lead to more fulfilling lives.