Valuable Insight Gained from VA Suicide Prevention Hotline

Suicide hotlines are available throughout the United States and many other countries. They provide a lifeline for individuals who are contemplating suicide or having suicidal thoughts. The increase in military veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has elevated concern for suicide prevention services among veterans. To address this potential health problem, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has increased its efforts by developing a group of suicide prevention task force teams, suicide prevention programs, increased access to mental health services, and the National Suicide Hotline for veterans. These enhancements to existing programs allow potential suicide attempters to receive desperately needed care through multiple resources. The suicide hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and may be the only outlet accessible to veterans contemplating suicide at particular hours of the day and night. In addition, the VA has worked tirelessly to expand access to other social services through a referral system integrated within the suicide prevention program. These resources include substance abuse programs, marital counseling, and other mental health services.

One of the largest barriers to getting help for suicidal thoughts is the stigma associated with it. For veterans, reaching out for help is seen as a sign of weakness. To combat this challenge, the VA has launched an awareness campaign that describes its suicide prevention program as a source of strength. Until recently, the effectiveness of these new strategies has not been fully measured. In particular, men, who represent the majority of veterans who commit suicide, have been underrepresented in studies focusing on validity and deliverability of suicide programs. To address this gap, Kerry L. Knox of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention at the VA Medical Center in Canandaigua, New York, led a study that assessed how the VA’s suicide hotline has helped veterans.

Knox discovered that the hotline resulted in a dramatic increase in callers admitting that they were indeed veterans. The callers were primarily middle-aged men. The hotline resulted in over 4,000 network referrals for follow-up services to address issues related to suicide such as depression and posttraumatic stress. “Moreover, the VA’s hotline consists of trained clinicians, whereas most community hotline responders have little if any training in crisis intervention,” added Knox. This factor alone may explain the increase in male responsiveness and is an important factor to consider when implementing additional suicide prevention programs aimed at veterans in distress.

Knox, K. L., Kemp, J., McKeon, R., Katz, I. R. (2012). Implementation and early utilization of a suicide hotline for veterans. American Journal of Public Health102S, S29-32.

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  • Mark D Worthen PsyD

    Mark D Worthen PsyD

    April 11th, 2012 at 9:55 PM

    Excellent article about a huge success story in public mental health. Kudos to the VA for a job well done.

  • Josie


    April 12th, 2012 at 4:16 AM

    This kind of service is so valuable in so many different ways. First and foremost it offers help in an area that is so greatly needed. We all know that there are thousands of veterans who suffer from a desire to committ suicide but they also recognize this and need help being talked out of a potentially fatal situation that this can cause. It also offers them a level of anonimity that they may desire too, because so many of them are afraid if anyone higher up knows of their travails then they will risk losing their military standing. This is something that could not come soon enough.

  • Skylar


    April 12th, 2012 at 12:29 PM

    I am curious to learn more about the outreach program that simply would inform veterans that this is available to them. Are you doing it via direct mail, email, one on one counseling. . . how does that work?

  • Mark D Worthen PsyD

    Mark D Worthen PsyD

    April 12th, 2012 at 3:34 PM

    Skylar – I’m sure there are ways that I don’t know about but here are a few I know:

    1) Veterans who visit a VA Medical Center are often told about the Veterans Crisis Line and given a brochure, keychain, wristband, etc.

    2) provides promotional materials, including web badges that you will see on almost any Veteran-oriented website:

    3) The VA has, as I understand it, done a lot of outreach with Veterans Service Organizations (e.g., state Veteran’s agencies, American Legion, VFW, etc.) about the Veterans Crisis Line.

    As I mentioned, I’m sure there are many other ways the VA has “got the word out” but those are a few to give you an idea.

  • chas


    April 13th, 2012 at 4:30 PM

    I find it so discouraging that a brotherhood of sorts like the military is still making the seeking of treatment for mental health issues so taboo. I want my brothers to be healthy- why doesn’t this organization as a whole? Do you mean to tell me that they think everyone who enlists has to be some macho kind of guy who never needs help? Don’t we all need a little help from time to time? I think that it is wonderful that hotlines are helping, but I like to think that one on one conversation face to face time is still valuable too, and I think that this is something that a lot of veterans feel copelled to avoid because of the shame that they may feel for simply asking for help.

  • V.Warner


    April 14th, 2012 at 1:14 AM

    And why do so many veterans think seeking help is undesirable? Although that could depend on various factors and the reasons many, it would help to talk to them about seeking help at the time of deployment and maybe even a program wherein the armed forces personnel may seek help DURING their deployment and if found necessary they could be relieved of their deployment?

  • Derek


    April 14th, 2012 at 11:37 AM

    As a former Marine, I can tell you why they don’t offer this kind of help to soldiers. For the most part these are guys who are NEVER going to admit to anyone that they may have a weakness, or what they think is a weakness by needing counseling or therapy. Not only are you afraid of what someone else is going to think of you, you start thinking of all the ways that this could negatively affect how far you are promoted, etc. and it just doesn’t seem worth it. So you learn to keep it all inside. I guess I am a little different in that I am willing to share this point of view, but then again this is in an anonymous kind of situation. I don’t know that I would ever be able to admit to something like this to friends and family.

  • mike carey

    mike carey

    April 15th, 2012 at 4:35 AM

    You still have to get the soldiers to make that call.
    What is the driving force gonna be to get them to let go of what is holding them back from seeking help and set them free to take care of themselves?
    Just like with anything else there is never any guarantee that just because there is help available that they will use it.

  • Fred


    April 16th, 2012 at 7:28 AM

    Good first steps. We all know that more has to be done, but we have to be happy when any step forward has been made.

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