Veterans Day is less than a month away, but for too many who served in the armed forces and their loved ones, one day of support and recognition each year is not nearly enough to ease constant suffering and avert tragedy.
While exact numbers on suicides among vets is not known, Veterans Affairs knows the rate is increasing. And while the problem touches veterans of all ages, it is most prevalent among those who fought decades ago.
"We do know that the biggest group of veterans in America that die by suicide every year are our Vietnam-era veterans," says Janet Kemp, the Veterans Affairs' national mental health program director for suicide prevention.
In an attempt to stem the rising number of suicides, the VA has been beefing up its counseling and outreach programs. As part of an executive order issued by President Barack Obama on Aug. 31, the VA will increase staffing at its Veterans Crisis Line (visit veteranscrisisline.net or call 800-273-8255).
The Veterans Crisis Line has handled 655,000 calls since its 2007 launch, although Kemp notes the name is a bit of a misnomer. "It is for anyone who's having any degree whatsoever of emotional distress," she says. "We would love to talk to people and start working with people long before they reach a crisis stage."
While Vietnam-era vets make up a large segment of crisis line callers, younger vets also are taking advantage of the service. And friends and family of veterans are welcome and are encouraged to call if they believe a loved one is having problems. Kemp says parents and grandparents of younger vets can be especially important in getting help for their grown child or grandchild.
The VA has recently added several features to the crisis line website. For vets who feel more comfortable on a computer than on a phone, there is a chat feature. Vets also can text their questions to 838255 and will receive a response from a counselor. For those who aren't sure if they have a problem, there's a self-check quiz (www.vetselfcheck.org) that can give them answers.
"Literally thousands of people have gotten in to do that self-check quiz and then made a decision to talk to a counselor," Kemp says. "It's almost like a conversation starter."
The Northport VA Medical Center (www.northport.va.gov) has counselors who can help. Call 631-261-4400.