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Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden, American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 13, 2009 –
Help is only a phone call away for military veterans considering suicide.
Nearly 100,000 veterans, family members or friends of veterans have reached out for help by calling the Department of Veterans Affairs suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK. The hotline was launched July 2007.
The VA initiative is part of a collaborative effort with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a nationwide network of 133 crisis centers. Calls automatically are routed to the nearest center based on the caller’s area code.
The hotline operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is staffed by trained mental health professionals prepared to deal with immediate crisis. Although the lifeline isn’t restricted to military veterans only, callers are prompted to “please press 1 now” if they are a U.S. military veteran or are calling about a veteran. Callers who press 1 are transferred to the nearest VA call center.
More than 2,600 veterans have been “rescued” through the hotline, according to a recent VA statement.
“I urge veterans and their loved ones to take advantage of our suicide-prevention program,” VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said in the statement. “Help for these heroes is a phone call away.”
An estimated 5,000 veterans commit suicide annually, with Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans 35 percent more likely to commit suicide than the general population. VA statistics show that between 2002 and 2006, more than 250 veterans who left the military after Sept. 11, 2001, committed suicide.
The trend has grown within the active-duty military rank,s too. A steady increase in suicides among veterans and active-duty members has been persistent in recent years. The Army recently announced 2008 as its highest suicide year since 1980, with at least 128 soldiers confirmed to have taken their own lives, while 15 other cases are pending investigations.
VA, the Defense Department and local communities are making it a point to understand suicide and determine better prevention methods. Defense leaders, including Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have voiced concerns for short- and long-term solutions.
“We have got to be able to support those individuals in ways that, in some cases, we haven’t quite figured out yet,” Mullen said during a lecture at Grove City College, Pa., earlier this month.
Mullen routinely advocates for solutions to increase the amount of rest and time at home troops have in between deployments. Officials recognize the high tempo of deployment rotations as being a likely factor for the increased suicide rates.
VA and active-duty military officials are working with outside research organizations to improve their programs and lower the numbers. The Army and National Institute of Mental Health recently launched a five-year research initiative to gain a better understanding in the hope of preventing suicides in the military and nation.
To identify and treat at-risk patients, prevention efforts and initiatives are in place in each of VA’s 153 medical centers and more than 750 outpatient clinics across the nation. Also, suicide prevention coordinators are on hand at each facility.
Troubled veterans, whether they call the suicide prevention hotline or walk in, receive follow-up care almost immediately. Preliminary evaluations occur within 24 hours of requests, and referrals are given for mental health appointments. Comprehensive evaluations are conducted within 14 days, with emergency cases handled immediately.