This is the front line of the government’s expanding efforts to deter suicide among veterans.
Estimates, while not universally accepted, seem alarming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, veterans account for about one in five of the more than 30,000 suicides committed in the United States each year.
Under growing pressure from veterans groups and Congress, the Veterans Affairs Department in recent years has hired more than 5,000 therapists and counselors and established a system of suicide prevention coordinators at more than 150 medical centers.
While this is laudatory (if not years too late), critics claim that not enough is being done to prevent vets from reaching the point where suicide has become more than an option.
To critics, including some veterans advocates, the hot line is a necessary but last-ditch approach, a tourniquet for people with dire psychological wounds. Until the department develops more effective long-term programs to treat and prevent suicidal behavior, the numbers will continue to rise, they say.
“A veteran would have to have reached the point of actually considering suicide to actually call the suicide hot line,” a veteran, Melvin Citron, testified before a House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee in a hearing on suicide this month. “I would submit that by then, for some, it could have been prevented.”
But the department and its supporters say the hot line is much more than a Band-Aid. For many veterans, it has become a gateway into government services. About a third of callers are not in the veterans health system, so workers on the prevention hot line can steer them to programs they may not have known about.
The hot line is also clearly saving some people, if only for a day. In the 2007 fiscal year, when it opened, the center handled about 9,380 calls. Last year the number jumped more than tenfold, to nearly 119,000.
It's astonishing that the hot line only opened in 2007, when the epidemic of suicide amongst both active duty military personnel and returning vets was already well-known. One of the first posts I ever did on this blog was related to suicide and vets. And despite the latest efforts, June, 2010 was the worst month yet regarding active-duty military and suicide: 32 deaths.
I tend to agree that a hot line is a band-aid approach, and that putting resources into other forms of prevention should take precedent (the vet quoted above nails it: by the time you call a suicide hot line, you are past the point where prevention might really help). Also, we simply don't know what happens to many of the callers once they hang up.
However, in this ongoing fight that is the Never Ending War, anything is better than nothing. And the men and women working on the front lines of talking these guys down deserve full support and praise.
As we learned in Vietnam, the ancillary costs to war go on and on, well past the point where wars are either won or lost on the battlefield.