Every 16 minutes, someone in America commits suicide; each year, about 5,000 of those suicide victims are veterans. Those numbers are unacceptable, says Dr. Jan Kemp, VA's national suicide prevention coordinator.
"It's a very tragic situation when someone suffers the conflicts of war and undergoes the trials and tribulations of being put in harm's way, survives that, then comes home and chooses to die by suicide," Kemp said. ""We're failing them. It's all of our responsibility to own up to that. There's no reason any veteran in the United States of America should die by his own hand because they think people don't care, and that there's no way for them to make that situation better."
While many are concerned about suicide attempts among recently returned veterans, Kemp says that she's equally concerned about the older veteran population. "We're all starting to suffer some losses," she said. "Friends of ours are dying or getting into terminal or chronic illnesses. We've had some family and some personal losses. We're thinking about those transitions from working to retirement. There have been some economic changes. Retirement isn't what it used to be for some of us. Those are really critical times in people's lives.
"If you couple on top of those some war experiences, perhaps some recognized or unrecognized (post-traumatic stress disorder) ... we have some people who are in trouble," Kemp said.
VA has established a comprehensive suicide-prevention program, which includes suicide-prevention coordinators at every VA medical center, creating a pocket-sized suicide risk-assessment card, and the establishment of a national suicide-prevention hotline. The center is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and there is an option to speak to a veteran at all times. Also available is a 24-hour chat room staffed by mental health clinicians.
Kemp said organizations like The American Legion have a key role in the process.
"Your main goal in helping us do this is to carry that (hotline) number with you at all times, to carry those cards," she said. "Keep them in your (post) to make sure people have access to those, and to say, ‘I'm going to make this call for you. I'll help you do this.' Or, ‘Here's the number. Let me know when you've called.'" Legionnaires can also help Kemp's office by taking part in their S.A.V.E. program; it searches for possible signs of suicide, asking questions, validating a potential suicide victim's life, encouraging treatment and expediting the process of getting help.
"Suicide risk assessment is a process, not an event," Kemp said. "Most suicidal ideas are associated with the presence of an underlying treatable disorder. We are relying on all of you to help us out."
VA National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273-8255 (then dial 1)
Freelancer Ken Olsen writes about military suicide and programs designed to deal with the problem in the December American Legion Magazine.