VA officials strive to prevent veteran suicides

  • Published
  • By Donna Miles
  • American Forces Press Service
With more than 6,000 veterans committing suicide every year, and 98 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan taking their own lives during fiscal 2009 alone,  Department of Veterans Affairs officials are redoubling their outreach to veterans and promoting the toll-free suicide-prevention hotline.

National statistics show that veterans constitute about 20 percent of the 30,000 to 32,000 U.S. deaths each year from suicide.

Of an average of 18 veterans who commit suicide each day, about five receive care through the VA healthcare system. More than 60 percent of those five had diagnosed mental-health conditions.

Dr. Janet Kemp, VA's national suicide prevention coordinator, says she is committed to improving those statistics. She is heading up an outreach program to address problems that lead to suicide, and to ensure veterans as well as their loved ones know where to turn for help.

Veterans in the 18- to 29-year-old age group who use VA healthcare services are less likely to commit suicide than those who don't, Dr. Kemp said.

Based on statistical comparisons between the two groups, she estimated that 250 fewer veterans enrolled in the VA system take their own lives each year. She credited VA screening and assessment processes designed to identify high-risk patients and provide intervention, as needed.

Yet, during fiscal 2009, more than 700 members of the general veteran population died by their own hands, and another 10,665 made unsuccessful suicide attempts. In addition to the 98 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who committed suicide, 94 men and four women, there were 1,868 who made non-fatal attempts on their lives. Of these, 1,621 were men and 247 were women, reflecting trends in the general U.S. population.

"Just one death is one too many," said Dr. Antonette Zeiss, the deputy chief for mental health services at VA's central office. "The bottom line is, the efforts we put into enhancing overall mental health services have correlated with the reduction of suicide," especially among males who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Alarmed by an increase in suicides among this population between 2003 and 2004, VA officials adopted a comprehensive mental health strategic plan in 2004 that has helped to bring the numbers down.

Much of the plan is dedicated to increasing veterans' access to mental-health services. VA hired 6,000 additional mental-health professionals since 2004, bringing its full complement of providers to 20,000, Dr. Zeiss said.

"Access to care makes a difference," she said. "We have worked on improving access to care for all veterans."

VA mental health professionals are based at every VA medical center and the largest community-based clinic, and provide same- or next-day help to veterans in need, she said.

In addition, VA officials established a toll-free national suicide hotline in July 2007 that Dr. Kemp said receives about 10,000 calls a month from veterans as well as currently serving Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines. Callers dial 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and then select option "1" to talk directly with a VA professional trained to deal with an immediate crisis.

Dr. Kemp credited the hotline with stopping some 7,000 suicides in progress, in which callers were actively hurting themselves or in imminent danger of taking their own lives.

In addition, VA officials initiated an online chat service last July, accessible through the VA suicide-prevention Web site. The chat line enables veterans and their families and friends to go online to chat anonymously with a trained VA counselor. To date, almost 4,000 "chatters" have used the service, with several referred to the hotline for immediate care, Dr. Kemp reported.

To get the word out about these initiatives, VA officials launched an advertising campaign in 124 U.S. cities, with public service announcements featuring actor Gary Sinise and TV broadcaster Deborah Norville.

Dr. Kemp said she's received anecdotal evidence that the campaign already is having an impact. She cited one veteran who traveled to Las Vegas with the intent to commit suicide, writing a suicide note and making final preparations to take his life. Then, by chance, he noticed a poster about the VA suicide prevention hotline on a wall at a local bus stop and placed the call that ultimately saved his life.

"He's now alive and well and telling his story of success," Dr. Kemp said.