VA Doctor Talks About Suicide Prevention Efforts

VA Crisis Line Helps Veterans In Need

Recently sat down with Dr. Caitlin Thompson, the Deputy Director of Suicide Prevention at the VA, and asked her some questions about the efforts of the VA to help stop veteran suicides.

Questions for Dr. Thompson

1. You don't have a military background. What about working with Veterans made you want to continue supporting this community?

When I was completing my doctorate in psychology, I was working with female inmates in a maximum-security facility. I then moved to Denver to complete my postgraduate work at the Denver VA. During my time there, I worked with three male Veterans, all younger than 40, who later died by suicide. As a young clinician, to experience that level of loss, I wanted to try to understand what had happened. Why did these young men take their lives? That became a huge focus of my work. I knew that these were the men and women I wanted to work with, and work for.

2. Earlier this year, news broke that Veterans who seek help from VA have a lower rate of suicide than those who don't get help from VA. Why do you think that is?

Enhanced care at VA is making a difference.

VA has the largest integrated suicide prevention program in the nation. A national network of medical centers, Vet Centers, community resource centers, and outpatient clinics provide care tailored to the unique needs of the men and women who have served our country. In addition, there are more than 300 Suicide Prevention Coordinators nationwide who focus specifically on providing support to Veterans in crisis and connecting them to care.

The Veterans Crisis Line is also available to any Veteran in crisis. It provides free, confidential support 24/7 to Veterans and their loved ones by phone, online chat, or text. We're here to help every Veteran going through a difficult time, whether or not that Veteran is in VA care. All it takes is one conversation to make a huge difference in a Veteran's life.

3. How, if at all, do the mental health needs of Veterans differ from those needs in the rest of the population? What is VA doing to address and accommodate those differences?

Some of these men and women have gone through hell, and they have done it for all of us. Others, who may not have deployed, are still working hard to complete their missions at home. Through VA's integrated system, we provide Veterans continuity of care when they're in crisis. Ready access to high-quality, longer-term care can, and does, make a difference. That's how people get better; we know that treatment works. Helping Veterans to reconnect with family and friends — to feel a sense of fulfillment in their lives — gives them hope.

4. What happens when someone calls the Veterans Crisis Line, or seeks help through VA?

The Veterans Crisis Line, and the associated Military Crisis Line, are extraordinary. Veterans, Service members, and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, text to 838255, or chat online at at any time of day or night. Veterans in crisis who call, text, or chat are immediately connected to caring, trained responders who work exclusively with Veterans, Service members, and their families. Many of these dedicated responders are also Veterans. We receive more than 1,000 calls a day, so our team has experience assessing how a Veteran is doing and how best to connect him or her to needed services. Just one call can open the door to support.

5. At what point should a Veteran, or a family member or friend of a Veteran, seek help? What should they look for to know that what they're experiencing is unlikely to get better without help?   It's important to remember that suicide is complex, and that no single factor leads to it. However, we do know that transition points and major life events can increase the risk for suicide. These might include divorce, job loss, or the death of a loved one — events that could lead to depression and increase the risk for suicidal thoughts. It's especially important to look for warning signs during these sensitive times. Signs include:  

  • Hopelessness, feeling like there's no way out
  • Anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness, or mood swings
  • Feeling like there is no reason to live
  • Rage or anger
  • Engaging in risky activities without thinking
  • Increasing alcohol or drug abuse
  • Withdrawing from family and friends

If someone you know starts talking about death, dying, or hurting or killing himself or herself, or if that individual is self-destructive, it's important to take him or her seriously and to call the Veterans Crisis Line immediately.

6. What message do you most want every Veteran, and family members of Veterans, to know about seeking help?

Families and friends are often the first to notice when a Veteran or Service member is going through a difficult time. The most important thing that any Veteran or Service member and their families should know is that we care — we're here to listen. One small action can have a huge impact, and support is available 24/7. Taking the first step to reach out — whether that's a call, text, chat, or conversation — can lead to Veterans finding the care that they've earned and deserve.

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