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September/october 2008

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I am stepping down as chair of VVA’s national PTSD/Substance Abuse Committee. However, I have accepted a position in the VVA national office as Senior Analyst for Veterans’ Benefits and Mental Health Issues. I am confident that a new chair will be selected by the October Board meeting. I plan to work closely with the new chair and members to insure that the committee continues to meet its goals and commitments on behalf of VVA and America’s veterans.

Here’s my Leadership Conference report: The PTSD/Substance Abuse Committee sponsored the seminar “Post-War Integration: From Battlemind
to PTSD” by Dr. Matt Friedman, Executive Director of the National Center for PTSD. Dr. Friedman presented his seminar twice, once before the VVA Leadership Conference attendees, and later for the members of Veterans of Modern Warfare who were having their first National Convention in Greenville. Dr. Friedman provided a wealth of information particularly about the different PTSD treatment modalities in use and those under study. Both sessions were well attended.

According to an AP report published July 28, the government says that more than 22,000 veterans have sought help from the suicide hot line in its first year, and 1,221 suicides have been averted. In the same article, Dr. Jan Kemp, national suicide prevention coordinator for the VA, said: “The hot line receives up to 250 calls per day—double the average number calling when it began. Callers are divided evenly between veterans from the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam wars.”

The VA estimates that every year 6,500 veterans take their own lives. The mental health director for the VA, Dr. Ira Katz, said last December that of the eighteen veterans who commit suicide each day, four to five of them are under VA care, and 12,000 veterans under VA care are attempting suicide each year.

The veterans hot line, which is linked to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, received 55,000 callers in its first year, including veterans and people who are concerned about them, according to figures released in July. One-third of the 40 specially trained counselors are veterans themselves.

“We try to get them [callers] to talk about their situation and what they remember and see if they can identify exactly what their issues are. I think there’s a comfort in knowing that they can get some help from people who do understand what combat stress is like,” Kemp said.

Call center counselors can instantly check a veteran’s medical records and then connect the caller to local VA suicide prevention coordinators for follow-up, monitoring, and care at local VA Medical Centers. Kemp said that since the hot line started, 106 veterans have been steered to free medical care from the VA. Kemp also said the hot line was put in place specifically for veterans who don’t get enough help until it’s too late.

“They have indicated to us that they are in extreme danger. Either they have guns in their hand, or they’re standing on a bridge, or they’ve already swallowed pills,” she said. Kemp said 1,221 veterans who were in such situations were rescued during the hot line’s first year.

The VA is preparing for the return of large numbers of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. This could put added stress on the mental-health screening program for returning veterans, which could lead to a rise in undiagnosed mental-health issues. The VA received enough money to double its suicide prevention staff and is planning to hire 212 more people soon.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day by calling 800-273-TALK (8255). Veterans should press “1” after being connected.



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