Help For Suicide Prevention - Just a Phone Call Away

Chazz Pratt
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When dealing with a tough situation like suicide, knowing who to turn to and finding good help is a must. Just know that in such a crisis, Suicide Prevention assistance is available for Veterans, Military Spouses, and Military Families. If you've ever wondered where to ask for help, look no further.

Grab a pen or enter the following phone number from the National Suicide Prevention Hotline into your phone. Don't hesitate to call this number whenever you need to. That number is 1-800-273-8255 PRESS 1. The good news is that there's always a person ready to pick up the phone and talk to you 24/7. And the great news is this; you can SAVE A LIFE!

Welcome to the Veterans Crisis Line!

I had the recent opportunity to interview Dr. Janet Kemp, the national director of the Veterans Affair's suicide prevention program . You could practically hear the high level of care and concern for veterans and military families in her voice. When I mentioned her personal efforts in making these important resources happen, Dr. Kemp exhibited a lot of humility and was quick to give credit to her team of professionals who stand ready to assist in times of crisis. This office has an important mission: To help the VA Staff identify people at who are at high risk for suicide and get those people involved in treatment and care and reduce the number of Veteran suicides.

Charles "Chazz" Pratt III (CP3): You have many programs available to Military Veterans. Which is the most visible program you have?

Dr. Janet Kemp (Dr. K): Probably the most visible of our programs is The Veterans Crisis Line, which is available 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. We also have a Chatting Service and a Texting Service available.

CP3: How many people have contacted the Veteran's Crisis Line?

Dr. K: Over 600,000 people have contacted us to date and we have been able to make a difference in their lives.

CP3: You started this in 2007. What challenges did you have early on?

Dr. K.: Just note this is a VA concept not a Janet Kemp concept. There's a tremendous amount of internal VA support behind this. Whenever you endeavor to set something up on a national basis, there are a lot of barriers. Namely, we needed to be able to provide services out of one location in order to serve Veterans all across the United States. We needed a phone routing system that would allow people to get their calls directly to us using a popular number - something readily available. We partnered with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and Life Line Crisis Centers to use the National Suicide Prevention Number and they have been extraordinary partners in this endeavor.

CP3: Can anyone associated with the military call the number?

Dr. K.: Anyone in the country can call the same number, 1-800-273-8255 PRESS 1. If you're a Veteran or a member of the military, once you're instructed to PRESS 1, they route your call to our Call Center. So, we're able to help Callers from a national perspective into the Veterans Call Center, and it also allows anyone in a Military Family or Community or an Organization to utilize the same number to get help. Because suicide is not unique to only Veterans, we're kind of all in this together.

CP3: You mentioned the second challenge was building the infrastructure - both the building and the people. Tell me about your Staff at the Veterans Crisis Line.

Dr. K.: We staff our Call Center with professionals who know what they're doing and understand Veteran's issues and have the medical and counseling skills to provide adequate care to Veterans and Servicemembers over the phone. We have a wealth of Professionals, Social Workers, Counselors, and Nurses who really want to do this work, so we were fortunate there.

CP3: How big of a challenge was getting the Veterans and Military to reach out to you?

Dr. K.: The most important barrier to overcome was trying to explain to Veterans and Servicemembers what we do. What would be the benefit of calling us? We did a great deal of marketing and public relations work around the Veterans Crisis Line but this turned out to be the lesser of the barriers. We managed to make these services available and people use them! They ask for help. As long as they know that they're there, they want help and assistance. So, that's been a truly pleasant surprise!

CP3: Now, there's always that stigma that people in uniform or families might have in taking that first step and making that first phone call to the Veterans Crisis Line. How have you been able to overcome a person's apparent hesitancy to call for help?

Dr. K.: The Veterans Crisis Line is truly confidential. This is especially since you want to be able to get lots of help without having to give out your name. We honor that confidentiality. Of course, if someone is in an immediate crisis we do get them help. I think we've been able to, over time, establish trust relationships from Veterans and Military. Some people have called several times and spoken with us and some ask us to refer them on for additional services that can help. But, knowing you can call and talk to people confidentially is important and a critical element in how this works.

CP3: How else has this program made an impact?

Dr. K.: We've also been able to sometimes help break some barriers to getting care. Along with the stigma, sometimes it is difficult to get care. For example, a big system such as the VA system the paperwork is incredible, sometimes there are waiting lists and lines...and when people call the Veterans Crisis Line we might be able to bypass some of that. We've also recognized (as well as other agencies that help Veterans) that during this time of War, Veterans have been very strong and courageous with many of them having survived multiple deployments. They come back with new skills and new strengths, and it is okay to call to get some help on how to readjust back into society. It's almost like asking our Veterans to make one more act of courage when we ask them to step up and make that call for help. And people are doing just that - stepping up to the plate for the sake of their lives and their families.

CP3: My understanding is that in 2001, the Military reported around 150 suicides. That number rose to about 295 in the year 2010. Within the past decade, an alarming 2000 suicides were reported within military ranks. Keeping those troubling numbers in mind, what do we all need to be looking out for? With such high rates of suicide, what are the Warning Signs?

Dr. K.: They're different for everyone. One of the things to be aware of is when the person you care about or love just doesn't seem to be themselves. When you ask them what's going on or if you try to question them about how they are feeling, they sometimes talk about death, or a sense of hopelessness. And it's kind of that combination of pain and difficulty and hopelessness that's a huge warning sign that they might be thinking about killing themselves. Those casual comments said such as; "You know, I won't have to worry about this next year." or possibly someone who is giving away their possessions, or maybe even unwarranted attention in making sure their financial affairs and wills are in order - along with talk about death or a sense of hopelessness, might be some indicators that someone is making some plans to die.

CP3: Any other things to look out for?

Dr. K.: There are also some Warning Signs that are a little more subtle and harder to recognize such as; increased risk-taking behavior, or maybe not being as careful as they used to be driving, increased substance use, perhaps reckless actions while drinking, increased violence episodes, or having trouble with Friends and work colleagues and perhaps Family relationships. All of those things add up together to make the situation feel hopeless. Comments such as, "You'd be better off without me!", "I don't know why I can't stop doing this!", or "I might as well just end it all!" need to be taken seriously.

CP3: How well does the Veterans Crisis Line Staff relate to Military people?

Dr. K.: Our Staff comes from a wide variety of backgrounds. Sometimes we have Military Spouses answering the phone. We have Veterans who answer the phones. Other times, we have people currently serving in the Guard and Reserve answering the phones. We have Civilians who've worked for years in the VA System. We tell everyone working on our Staff to "Listen well!" we call it, and be there and try to meet the person where they live (by relating to them).

CP3: How has Social Media impacted the Veterans Crisis Line and Suicide Prevention?

Dr. K.: We developed an Online Chat Service which is more of an Instant Messaging (IM) system. People can click and chat. At first we thought that this would be most useful for the newer group of Veterans who were used to communicating using the computer as opposed to communicating by phone, and although there is some degree of that we're finding that everyone loves the Chat feature despite their era or age group. Truly, there's a comfort in being able to write your answers and being able to think about them a little bit before you respond. And we often have very long chats with people that end in a referral to the Veterans Crisis Line itself, or the Caller agrees to let us call them to get them hooked up with services. We just added a Texting Option and I think the younger Veterans are using this primarilyas their first method of connection. If we can text back to them and connect with them, we have a better chance of discussing things further on the phone. We also have Public Service Announcements (PSAs), videos on YouTube, and other media.

CP3: Tell me about the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder "PTSD Coach" App.

Dr. K.: The PTSD Coach is an App that's available for iPhone or DROID phones. It allows people to help manage and deal with their PTSD on their own using this application. There are direct links from the Application to the Crisis Line. We're also developing other Apps such as Safety Planning App to help keep Veterans safe which will be available later this year and we're excited about that!

CP3: You're providing some important services that every Veteran and Military Family needs to know about and take advantage of. Can you share the best way to find more information?

Dr. K.: The website is www.veteranscrisisline.net and the phone number, chat links and other help. To reach the Veterans Crisis Center, the number to call is 1-800-273-8255 PRESS 1. Universal Text for all phones is 838255.

CP3: Any final words?

Dr. K.: Give us a call! When someone is in distress or if you know someone who is in distress or even think someone is in distress that phone call won't hurt anything. Give us an opportunity to make a difference. Again, we're very hopeful about the information we now know about the ways to help people and that treatment does make a difference. The other valuable website is www.maketheconnection.net which has a series of videos featuring Veterans and their personal journeys. Veterans sharing their stories of hope can be seen there.

"Treatment does work!" Dr. Kemp said. "It's okay to ask for help. We know together, we can make a difference."

Note: There are many places to turn to for assistance. If you feel that you may need help, this is one resource, but please get the help you deserve.