This is Part 2 of an interview with Caitlin Thompson, Ph.D., Department of Veterans Affairs' Deputy Director in Suicide Prevention.
CP3: How do you identify the signs that a Veteran may be in crisis?
Dr. T: First, to give context, I’ll say when to be alert for the signs: People experience crises in response to a wide range of situations, including difficulties in personal relationships, loss of a job, and tough life transitions like returning from a deployment or entering civilian life. It’s especially important to look for warning signs during these sensitive times.
An important warning sign is a dramatic change in behavior. For example, if someone who used to be cheerful and gregarious is suddenly sullen and reserved, it could be a sign of a deeper issue. Other common warning signs include:
• Hopelessness, feeling like there’s no way out
• Anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness, or mood swings
• Feeling like there is no reason to live
• Rage or anger
• Engaging in risky activities without thinking
• Increasing alcohol or drug abuse
• Withdrawing from family and friends
And of course, when individuals start talking about hurting or killing themselves, death or dying, or when they begin to engage in self-destructive behavior, it’s imperative to take them seriously and call the Veterans Crisis Line immediately.
See a full list of warning signs here.
CP3: What are the best things to do if you encounter a Veteran in immediate danger of harming themselves?
Dr. T: Above all, treat the Veteran with compassion. Wanting to harm or kill oneself is a sign of intense despair and pain. It’s important to enter the situation without judgment. VA’s Operation SAVE offers some useful guidance on what to do:
Recognize the Signs: Look for warning signs, which I outlined above, that someone is in danger of harming or killing themselves.
Ask the Question, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” Contrary to popular belief, asking someone in distress if the individual has thought about suicide will not give that person the idea to take his or her own life. It will more likely feel like a relief to talk about it. Be direct, and ask in an open-ended way — that is, that doesn’t seem to demand a certain answer (e.g., “Are you having thoughts of suicide?“ rather than, “You’re not thinking of killing yourself, are you?” The latter sets the expectation that the person should answer “no” regardless of the truth.)
Validate the Experience: Accept the person’s answer without judgment, acknowledge their feelings, and let them know that the situation is serious and deserving of attention.
Encourage Treatment and Expedite Getting Help: Explain that professionals are available to help, and that treatment works. If you are in a health care setting or in proximity to a Suicide Prevention Coordinator or other clinician, escort them there. And you can, literally, always call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
CP3: What does the Veterans Crisis Line website provide in terms of helpful resources?
Dr. T: VeteransCrisisLine.net net offers a wealth of resources:
Confidential, free 24/7 online chat: VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat
VA resource locator: VeteransCrisisLine.net/ResourceLocator
Suicide Prevention Month information, including social media graphic generator: VeteransCrisisLine.net/ThePowerOf1
Suicide Prevention Month toolkit to spread the word: VeteransCrisisLine.net/SpreadTheWord
Veterans self-check quiz: VeteransCrisisLine.net/Quiz
Information for active Service members, Guard, and Reserve: www.MilitaryCrisisLine.net
Links to Make the Connection, connecting Veterans and their loved ones with information, resources, and solutions to issues affecting their lives: www.MakeTheConnection.net
CP3: If someone would like more information on this important program, how to they connect?
Dr. T: Individuals and groups can connect with their local Suicide Prevention Coordinator by using the online resource locator at VeteransCrisisLine.net/ResourceLocator. You can search by ZIP code and see your local SPC’s phone number and email address.
Sign up for quarterly emails about the Veterans Crisis Line to be the first to hear about news and tools you can share to help raise awareness of this life-saving resource.
CP3: Since the Veterans Crisis Line started connecting Veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring Department of Veterans Affairs responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text, what success stories can you share in encouraging someone to remember that their life matters and we need them?
Dr. T: Every day, the Veterans Crisis Line receives calls from Veterans who are grateful for the help that they previously received from Crisis Line responders. This help may include: Connecting a Veteran to his/her local VA Suicide Prevention Coordination to help with VA enrollment or follow-up with the Veteran’s treatment team; contacting emergency services on behalf of a Veteran who reports that he cannot stay safe and needs to go to a hospital; or simply listening to a Veteran when they are feeling anxious or distressed. The Veterans Crisis Line receives calls from all over the world from Veterans, Service Members, family, and friends. We want everyone to know that they can reach out for help and support at anytime, day or night.
CP3: Any additional comments, points, etc.?
Dr. T: I am so grateful that you have asked such important questions. As difficult as it may be sometimes, we need to continue to talk about suicide and ensure that we are all working together as a community to address suicide prevention efforts. Thank you so much for the opportunity to provide these answers.
For more information go to www.VeteransCrisisLine.net/ThePowerof1
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