The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports that one person commits suicide every 16 minutes in the United States. Of those, 20 percent are veterans. Approximately 5000 suicides occur per year among all veterans. Other news sources reported in 2008 that approximately 120 veterans committed suicide every week and that a 1000 suicide attempts per month were reported by veterans under VA’s care.
In 2008, VA founded the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273- TALK (8255) by collaborating with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline where veterans are assisted by a dedicated call center at Canandaigua VA Medical Center in New York. The call center is staffed with trained VA crisis health care professionals to respond to calls on a 24/7 basis and facilitate appropriate treatment. Since its launch, they have answered more than 390,000 calls and have made more than 13,000 life-saving rescues. VA hired Suicide Prevention Coordinators (SPR) at all of the 153 VA Medical Centers nationwide in an effort to provide local and immediate assistance during a crisis, compile local data for the national database and train hospital and local community on how to provide assistance. One of primary responsibilities of the SPRs is to track and monitor veterans who are placed on high risk of suicide (HRS). A safety plan for that individual veteran is created to ensure they are not allowed to fall through the cracks.
In 2009, VA instituted an online chat center for veterans to further reach those veterans who utilize online communications. The total number of VeteransChat contacts reported since September 2009 was 3,859 with 1471 mentioning suicide. VA has also had targeted outreach campaigns which included billboards, signage on buses and PSA’s with Actor Gary Sinise to encourage veterans to contact VA for assistance.
The American Legion has been at the forefront of helping to prevent military and veteran suicides in the community. The American Legion approved Resolution 51, The American Legion Develop a Suicide Prevention and Outreach Referral Program, at the 2009 National Convention. In addition, Dr. Janet Kemp, VA’s National Suicide Prevention Coordinator facilitated Operation S.A.V.E. Training for our VA&R Commission members. VA&R Commission members and volunteers subsequently developed American Legion state, district and post training programs to provide referrals for veterans in distress with VA’s National Suicide Prevention Hotline. The American Legion currently has over 60 posts with active Suicide Prevention and Referral Programs.
In December 2009, The American Legion took the lead in creating a Suicide Prevention Assistant Volunteer Coordinator position description, under the auspices of VA’s Voluntary Service Office. Each local suicide prevention office is encouraged to work with veteran service organizations and community organizations to connect veterans with VA’s programs in their time of transition and need. The Suicide Prevention offices can increase their training of volunteers to distribute literature and facilitate training in order to further reach veterans in the community.