- The Washington Times - Friday, July 6, 2007

A new national suicide hot line will allow veterans to seek help for mental-health crises 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) said.

“This is another significant step to ensure that veterans, particularly the newest generation of combat vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, receive accessible and compassionate care for their mental-health concerns,” said Jim Nicholson, VA secretary.

The new hot line, set to debut by Aug. 31, will be staffed with mental-health professionals based at the VA Medical Center in Canandaigua, N.Y. A facility that, according to the VA, “is already a VA center of excellence focused on suicide prevention, mental-health education and research.” The coordinators of this program will also be responsible for training others on the warning signs of suicide and help people identify those who are at risk for suicide.

The VA, which operates the nation’s largest mental-health program, recently announced that it will assign suicide prevention coordinators to all 153 VA medical centers. These coordinators will join the 9,000 mental-health professionals employed by the VA. Mr. Nicholson also announced that the VA office will hire 100 new employees to help counsel at the 207 community Veteran centers.

This announcement comes on the heels of a new report published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health that finds male veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide when compared with those who never served. The VA also says that out of 100,000 veterans who sought help from the VA, 25 percent had at least one diagnosis that pertained to mental health.

Suicide risk is sometimes associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The VA also reports that veterans who were wounded or hospitalized are more likely to develop PTSD.

Dr.Kari A. Martin, instructor of psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, says that “half of the people [diagnosed with PTSD] will significantly improve over three months.”

Dr. Martin says patients who have been released from a mental-health facility tend to have a high rate of suicide within the first week. She also said that veterans who have medical problems and chronic pain will also have an increased rate of suicide, but also says that “it’s not necessary that they were exposed to combat.” She said many times it can be just as traumatic for veterans to hear about stress-inducing events.

Dr. Martin praised the VA for its mental-health programs and said that there are also many other crises lines and community groups veterans can contact to seek help.

This month the VA will also hold a four-day mental-health forum in Washington to review some of the most important mental-health issues addressed by the agency.