COLUMBIA — According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5,000 veterans commit suicide every year. The Department of Veterans Affairs is working to reduce this number.
Based on the number of suicides among returning soldiers, home may be more dangerous than the field, said Janet Kemp, National Suicide Prevention Coordinator for the VA.
“These numbers aren’t as clean as people would like them,” she said. "These are only the ones we know about."
She said the numbers are difficult to track because not all veterans are receiving VA care. It's impossible to tell whether the suicide rate is up or the VA has just become better at tracking it, Kemp said.
At the annual Show Me You Care About Suicide Prevention Conference in Jefferson City on Friday, Kemp talked about some of the factors that could lead to suicide among veterans.
Changes in the type of injuries soldiers now suffer, and survive, may be impacting veterans when they return home, Kemp said. Some soldiers may also have trouble readjusting to the relationships they left behind. Another factor may be the perception among some in the armed forces that asking for mental health care is a sign of weakness.
“When military people become veterans, some of those strong military beliefs and values stay with them, which is good,” Kemp said. “But at the same time, it can prevent them from showing any signs of what they perceive as weakness. And certainly asking for mental health care can be perceived as a weakness.”
When you are used to people depending on you to stay alive, you don’t want them to think you are weak, she explained.
The VA and other mental health agencies are trying to change that mindset with a new advertising campaign that will run on the sides of 23,000 buses nationwide. The advertisement reads, “It takes the courage and strength of a warrior to ask for help,” followed by the phone number for the national suicide prevention hot line – 1-800-273-TALK. Callers are then instructed to press one for veterans.
The veterans’ branch of the hot line opened two years ago at 11 a.m. on a Thursday. The first call came at 11:20 and the line hasn’t stopped ringing since, Kemp said.
As of this June, the hot line had received 162,475 calls, 78,098 of them from people who identified themselves as veterans and 1,918 from soldiers on active duty. As a result of the calls, 1,375 callers were admitted to VA Medical Centers or community hospitals to receive care.
The hot line receives calls from people of all ages and various war eras. The youngest caller so far was 18; the oldest was 87.
Depending on the needs of the caller, the hot line will put them in contact with a local Suicide Prevention Coordinator, which every VA Medical Center has or is in the process of hiring.The local coordinator then takes the action needed to best help the veteran.
“I like to see their faces,” Kathy Crews, the suicide prevention coordinator at the VA Medical Center in Columbia, said. “People can sound one way and be a totally different way. You can’t always hear people crying over the telephone, but you can see it.”
The Columbia VA serves veterans and their families within a 150-mile radius, so Crews stays busy. Her most recent case occurred Thursday afternoon.
Crews said a veteran had called the hot line in emotional crisis, having “fallen off the wagon,” as she put it, and was having suicidal thoughts. The man was recovering from an alcohol problem but had started drinking again, which caused him to panic.
After Crews called the veteran, emergency services were sent to the man’s home and assisted him. He was admitted to the VA Medical Center and is now receiving treatment.
Through measures like the hot line, the VA is able to reach out to many veterans that it would otherwise be unable to help, Kemp said.
In an attempt to reach out to younger generations of returning soldiers, the VA's most recent tactic is one-to-one online chats for veterans in need. Those who may not be comfortable talking on the phone can still talk to someone in a way they feel secure, Kemp said.
The VA is also attempting to establish veterans courts within the judicial system. These special courts will be conscious of the factors that may be behind veteran’s behaviors like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other readjustment issues. The first veterans court opened in Buffalo, New York, in 2008. Missouri has not established one yet.
In the military, “things are different than they were 10 years ago,” Kemp said. “And in the VA, things are different than they were five years ago.”