VA suicide hotline takes 43,294 calls

Julie Sherwood

U.S. Army soldiers committed suicide in 2007 at the highest rate on record, and the toll is climbing this year as long war deployments stretch on.

At the Canandaigua VA Medical Center, the national suicide-prevention hotline had fielded 43,294 calls as of April 30. Of those calls, 885 resulted in a rescue, the VA reported.

When suicidal thoughts include specifics and indicate an immediate danger, emergency medical personnel are dispatched, said Lynn Abaide, suicide prevention coordinator for the Canandaigua VA and its Rochester outpatient clinic. 

“We know we need to intervene now,” she said of the rescues. “It’s a team effort.”

All veterans and their families who turn to the hotline receive ongoing help, explained Abaide. “We guide these folks into treatment.”

About half the calls that come to the hotline are from veterans themselves, she said, while the other half tend to be family members and loved ones.

Abaide said frequent redeployments contribute to the mental anguish that can lead to suicidal thoughts.

“That kind of anxiety is great,” she said.

Joanna Nichols, the VA’s administrative program support assistant for returning soldiers, said the VA is adding more programs and services to address the rising number of veterans in trouble. Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries are among the conditions the VA is working to treat.

A support group for veterans and their families meets the second Wednesday of each month, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the VA. It is run by a licensed therapist and is one of a number of initiatives, Nichols said.

To address veterans’ mental-health needs through Congress, U.S. Rep. Randy Kuhl, R-Hammondsport, announced last week the formation of the House Veterans’ Mental Health Caucus. The caucus aims to bring lawmakers together to increase awareness of mental-health needs of returning veterans, including conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, job training and readjustment, suicide prevention and funding needs, Kuhl said.

The caucus “will hold briefings with leading experts in the fields of veterans’ health care and mental health, circulate relevant articles and studies that bring new issues to light, and develop legislative proposals to address the increased importance of mental healthcare within our veterans’ communities nationwide,” he added.

The Associated Press reported the 115 confirmed suicides last year among active-duty soldiers and National Guard and Reserve troops who had been activated amounted to a rate of 18.8 per 100,000 troops — the highest since the Army began keeping records in 1980. Two other deaths are suspected suicides but still under investigation.

So far this year, the trend is comparable to last year, said Lt. Col. Thomas E. Languirand, head of command policies and programs.

As of last week, there had been 38 confirmed suicides this year and 12 more deaths that are suspected suicides but still under investigation, he said.

Contact Julie Sherwood at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 263, or jsherwood@messengerpostmedia.com.