DANVILLE — Veterans in crisis no longer have to keep the problem a secret — especially if it’s something life-threatening, such as thoughts of suicide.
“We’re here. We’re proactive,” said Natalie Liggett, MSW, LCSW, suicide prevention care manager at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System. “Suicide prevention is everyone’s business.”
In the past, mental health issues carried a stigma, and people kept problems a secret. Today, the VA is actively bringing the topic out into the open and making sure veterans get the care they need — before something happens.
“One of our main goals is awareness and reaching out,” said Bonnie Ellis, suicide prevention coordinator, who has been with the local VA for more than 20 years. She has been with the Suicide Prevention Program since it started five years ago.
She believes the program, which is part of the mental health department, is making a difference, saying, “I think we’ve really enhanced our care to reach veterans who may be at risk.”
The Veterans Crisis Line, which is based in New York, started with 50 responders, and now there are more than 100 people responding to crises.
“It’s a very good system,” she said. “Crisis responders are unique in their expertise, to assess the problem and facilitate care.”
When a vet calls the national crisis line, the responder will take immediate action and also contact the local crisis workers. With the veteran’s permission, Ellis and Liggett will set up outpatient care, if appropriate, or make other arrangements to make sure that he or she gets help.
“A lot of times, we’re educating a veteran or the family member for the first time on how we function,” Ellis said, and also registering the veteran for services.
Liggett and Ellis make at least five presentations a month to agencies in the communities served by the Illiana System. They also hold trainings for new employees.
Educating everyone about suicide prevention is key, Liggett said, because a veteran might open up to a groundskeeper or chaplain, rather than a mental health professional.
When a veteran is talking about suicide or seems at risk, the Suicide Prevention Program will be alerted. Even if a veteran attempted or thought about suicide several months ago, the office will be contacted. Liggett or Ellis will contact the veteran to make sure he’s receiving treatment and responding to it.
If a veteran misses an appointment, someone calls to make sure he or she is OK.
“Everyone does a great job assessing veterans,” Liggett said. “I think everyone here is doing well.”
The national crisis line isn’t called the suicide line anymore because a veteran might have a different crisis in his life. For example, a veteran might be despondent over financial woes, legal action, relationship problems or a job loss. Or he might have trouble adjusting to civilian life after years in the military.
Veterans who call the crisis line aren’t necessarily talking about suicide. Sometimes, they just don’t know where else to turn.
“Veterans always say they’re glad to have someone to talk to,” Liggett said.
Sometimes, a veteran can be out of the service several years before he or she feels the need to open up to someone. “When they leave active duty, they’re given a lot of information,” Ellis said. “Their main goal is to re-enter their life.”
It’s a process re-adjusting to civilian life, and a person will have ups and downs.
Considering the number of young veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA added a text feature late last year. The younger vets are more comfortable texting or chatting online, Liggett said.
“I think we’re being proactive and letting the veteran know we’re here,” she said.
During Suicide Prevention Month, which was last month, VA officials set up informational tables and distributed items with the national crisis line number on them. One day, speakers gave presentations on suicide prevention to veterans; on another day, presentations were given to clinical staff on trauma and why it must be addressed.
Since its launch in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered more than 640,000 calls and made more than 23,000 life-saving rescues. In 2009, an anonymous online chat service was added, which has helped more than 50,000 people.
The VA responders — many of them veterans themselves — also provide referrals to local VA services and help vets get fast-tracked mental health care.
In the Illiana System — which includes Lafayette, Ind., Decatur, Peoria, Springfield and Mattoon — there were 34 suicide attempts (includes five females) and seven completions (all men) in 2011.
Five died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds and two died of overdose. Three were veterans from the Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom era; one each from Vietnam era and post-Vietnam; and two were post-Korean War.
With the attempted suicides, 23 tried to overdose and five tried cutting. Other attempts involving hanging, suffocation, poison and death by police. Ten of the 34 attempts were veterans from OEF/OIF era; 11 served in the Gulf War; four were Vietnam era; seven were post-Vietnam and one was post-Korea.
Nationally, 68 percent of veteran suicide deaths involved a firearm, and there is an almost five times higher risk of suicide for persons who live in a household where at least one firearm is kept.
Because of the high number of deaths by gunshot, the local Suicide Prevention Program is starting a campaign later this year on gun safety.
“We’re not trying to take guns away,” Liggett said. “We want to make sure they’re safely stored and have gun locks.”
When a gun is locked, that gives a veteran time to stop and think twice about what he’s doing.
The Suicide Prevention office has brochures detailing safe storage and safety tips. Mental health workers already give out gun locks to veterans.
Ellis noted that friends and family members also need to get involved. People should “facilitate and advocate on behalf of a loved one, and get them into an appropriate environment for assessment.
“We want to educate people to take action on that gut feeling. It’s that access to care that’s so powerful.”
Either make that call for the veteran or walk him or her into a clinic, she said.
After having been in the mental health field for more than 20 years, Ellis said, “It’s been a wonderful opportunity to be part of a program that started in the VA and has great national direction. It’s been a challenge … it’s been a good challenge.”
She added, “I think we’ve come a long way.”
The VA offers a network of support for veterans and their families and friends:
- Call the free and confidential crisis line at (800) 273-8255, and press 1.
- Go to www.VeteransCrisisLine.net to access the confidential, anonymous online chat with a responder.
- Text to 838255.