The Veterans Crisis Line has seen a sharp uptick in calls since the Taliban took control of Kabul in mid-August, a sign that veterans experienced significant stress as the war in Afghanistan came to a close.
But Department of Veterans Affairs officials say the increase also means former service members are seeking help -- an encouraging trend that may be the result of a concerted effort to eliminate any stigma associated with mental health treatment.
"Our [Veterans Crisis Line] number is being marketed everywhere right now, which I'm thankful for," said psychologist and Crisis Line Director Lisa Kearney during a call with reporters Tuesday. "The more we can do to normalize discussions about crisis, about suicide and it's OK to reach out for help ... I'm thankful for it."
Texts to the hotline jumped 98% between Aug. 14 and Aug. 29, while chat messages and calls rose by 40% and 7% when compared with the same time frame last year, according to the VA.
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Since the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Kabul, veterans, their advocates and mental health professionals have expressed concern for the health of former troops, who may be experiencing renewed grief over the loss of comrades-in-arms or questioning their service or purpose as the war concluded.
VA officials said August is typically the beginning of the line's busiest time, running through October. In addition to Afghanistan, "multiple factors are at play" this year that may be pushing veterans to seek assistance, they said.
"We've had multiple broad and meaningful weather events, we are going into the 20th anniversary of 9/11 ... and you have different political events that have occurred, to include the Afghanistan withdrawal," explained Matthew Miller, national director of the VA's Suicide Prevention Program, on the same call.
In 2020, the Veterans Crisis Line averaged 1,756 calls per day and had roughly 300 contacts a day through chat and text programs.
Since the Crisis Line protects anonymity, Kearney could not say whether the increase in calls has come primarily from any one group of veterans -- Afghanistan vets, post-9/11 or Vietnam veterans, etc. -- nor could she give a breakdown on branch of service or ages.
But, she noted, veterans ages 18 to 34 tend to favor the line's chat and text functions, while those over age 55 prefer to call, indicating that younger vets are reaching out at unprecedented levels.
"Veterans of all ages have been communicating questions and processing thoughts and feelings and concerns with us," Miller said.
With the increase in concern for veterans' mental health, members of the House and Senate have called on the VA to develop an outreach program for post-9/11 veterans to ensure they are aware of all available resources.
Iraq War veteran Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, sent a letter signed by 33 senators Tuesday to VA Secretary Denis McDonough urging the department to proactively contact veterans, especially the 800,000 who served in Afghanistan.
"These service members deserve and earned the support that they need," they wrote. "We appreciate the VA's commitment to providing mental health services to all veterans and ask, in light of the current situation, that the Department accelerate its efforts to provide resources -- to veterans of these recent conflicts."
Rep. Mike Bost of Illinois, the House Veterans Affairs Committee's highest ranking Republican, led a letter signed by seven other Republicans urging committee chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., to recall members from recess to conduct a hearing on veterans' mental health.
"We should have no higher priority," Bost wrote.
Miller and Kearney noted that the Veterans Crisis Line is available for all veterans, giving them the chance to connect with the VA for vital services, health care and emergency support.
No call is "unimportant," Miller said.
"Every call is worthwhile, every call is exactly what we are there for," he said. "The reason for that is that we find when veterans call us and talk with us or engage with us, it breaks down a wall ... in terms of stigma, in terms of barriers to care they may perceive. And when those walls are broken down, they're much more likely to contact us when they truly are in crisis."
The Veterans Crisis Line can be reached 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1, or by texting 838-255 or engaging via the Crisis Line's website.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.