In honor of Suicide Prevention Month in September, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) started the “Be There” campaign to encourage family and friends of veterans to be there in times of need.
Suicide prevention has been a nationwide effort, said St. Cloud VA Public Affairs Officer Barry Venable, and anyone, veteran or not, can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. But years ago, the VA created a point of contact available through that same hotline number, directing veterans to the veteran’s crisis line. Veterans can call the crisis line 24/7 at: 1 (800) 273-8255 and dial 1.
“It’s intended to be a one stop crisis center that can direct resources and assistance to veterans who may be in crisis and this is done in recognition of the amount of suicide thats prevalent in the veteran population,” Venable said. “Obviously suicide is a nationwide problem, it’s not just veterans, but that’s our role within the VA to take care of vets.”
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among all ages in the U.S., according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In 2017, the VA reported that veterans accounted for 13.5% of all deaths by suicide among U.S. adults. Around 20 veterans die by suicide each day. Venable said just six of those 20 were in contact with the VA for care.
The VA is working to provide care and outreach to all veterans year round, Venable said, and he knows the VA can work to impact those veterans in need.
“What we’re really looking to do at the VA and with all our VA affiliates is to try to get into a preventative model,” said Jeremy Maurstad, the director of mental health at the St. Cloud VA.
Part of the effort was starting the Be There campaign, he said, which provides multiple services and information helpful to veterans and their loved ones. The goal is to give both healthcare and non-healthcare providers the skills and knowledge to recognize and intervene with someone who may be at risk for suicide.
One offering in the Be There campaign is a free S.A.V.E. training video, teaching people how to respond if someone mentioned having thoughts of suicide.
“It looks at learning signs for suicide, what puts people at risk … and really how anybody that chooses to pay attention to those around them can actually be helpful,” Maurstad said.
This education can be continued through the VA’s Coaching into Care program where loved ones can speak to licensed professions about how to motivate veterans in their life to seek support. Veterans or loved ones can find shared stories of hope and recovery through the VA’s Make the Connection programs.
“Make the connection really, you get to hear and watch stories and videos of our vets who have contemplated or tried to commit suicide and survived or are in recovery from that. These stories are absolutely phenomenal and very inspiring,” Maurstad said.
Because of stigma around mental health, it can be difficult to get people to seek care, Maurstad said, which is why it’s important for all people to learn warning signs to help veterans and others in need.
If a loved one notices uncharacteristic behavior including a variety of signs such as: sadness, depression, talking about feeling hopeless, giving possessions away, anxiety, agitation, sleep issues, guilt, rage or impulsivity, it’s important to recognize and address those changes, Maurstad said.
Impulsivity or engaging in high risk activities is a common sign of concern for younger veterans, he said. Signs and symptoms can go on, but recognizing them as a loved one is the first step to helping a veteran.
“The worst thing we can do is recognize them and then walk away without trying to make some sort of intervention or at least have a discussion,” Maurstad said. “One of the biggest misnomers about suicide and suicide prevention is that if you ask somebody if they’re suicidal or if they’re thinking about harming or taking their own life, that that will trigger them to do that. That’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
Resources included in the Be There campaign can help family and friends to have an open decision with a veteran or anyone struggling with mental health and/or contemplating suicide.
If a veteran is at risk for suicide or there are obvious signs they are going to harm themselves, Maurstad said anyone who notices that shouldn’t hesitate to call 911 or other emergency services.
The VA offers various in-person and secure digital services for ongoing care, Maurstad said.
“A veteran can get care from the comfort of their own home or from their car when they’re on a break from work. It’s available to get counseling, therapy medication management, you name it we can deliver that for our vets at any time as long as that technology is a viable option,” he said.
Veterans can reach out to the VA for resources on arranging virtual care, including access to devices such as a tablet to use for appointments. Virtual care may be a great option for first time users of VA resources as well, Maurstad said.
“We hope to be in every vet’s home and provide them services,” he said.
The VA has worked to inform community partners of their services so veterans can learn about what the VA can offer from multiple sources. Maurstad said that visiting with a county veteran’s services officer is a great place to start.
Venable wanted to point out that veterans from all walks of life, even those who may not be eligible for certain services, can call the VA for assistance and urgent services. The VA also has an expansive referral service to help all vets find access to services.
“There’s no wrong door and lots of doors to open when vets contact the VA,” he said.
For more information and resources on the Be There campaign, visit BeThereForVeterans.com.
Veterans can receive same-day services regarding mental health at the St. Cloud VA Medical Center in Bldg. 111, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday to Friday, or in the Urgent Care Clinic in Bldg. 1, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. 365 days a year. Veterans can also call a VA Nurse 24/7 at (320) 252-1670, and dial 3.
Veterans with thoughts of suicide, harming themselves or others should call the Veterans Crisis Line to receive free, confidential support, 24/7, 365 days a year at 1 (800) 273-8255 and dial 1. They can also text to 838255, or chat online at Veterans CrisisLine.net/Chat.