At National Veterans’ Suicide Hotline Center In The Finger Lakes, The Phone Never Stops Ringing

Jan Kemp, director of the national Veterans Crisis Hotline, stands in one of the phone bank rooms at the hotline’s home at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Canandaigua, N.Y. in this Jan. 11, 2013 photo. (Photo by Dick Blume/The Post Standard)

Taken from  the Syracuse News  which is located   HERE.

Need help?
Call 800-273-8255 and press #1 to contact the the national Veterans Crisis Line, a suicide hotline for military personnel and veterans.

Canandaigua, N.Y. — The call came from a Vietnam veteran.

“My dog’s sitting in my lap, I got a 45 under my chin and you’ve got two minutes to tell me why I shouldn’t blow my f!#*!! brains out,” the caller told the Veterans Crisis Line responder, Dan Stone.

A veteran himself, Stone asked a question.

“What are you going to do with the dog?”

“I’ve got it so my ex-wife is going to take it.”

“Well that’s damn nice,” said Stone. “If you can’t put up with your ex-wife, how do you expect your dog to?”

Stone’s remark provoked laughter from the vet, changed the tone of the conversation, helped the vet to open up. An hour and a half into the call, the veteran agreed to let police check on him.

The call was one of Stone’s more memorable ‘rescues.’ He’s a call responder at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center, which is home to the nation’s Veterans Crisis Line, formerly known as the Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline.

In its five-plus years of existence in Canandaigua, a Finger Lakes village between Syracuse and Rochester, the crisis line has fielded some 750,000 calls and helped save some 26,000 callers on the brink of taking their own lives.

The program began with a staff of 13 working in a borrowed corner of a Rochester crisis phone center. Jan Kemp, its director then and now, wasn’t sure how busy they’d be. She advised responders to bring something to do as they waited for calls. Twenty minutes after the lines opened they received their first call.

“The phones haven’t stopped ringing since,” said Kemp, now the national VA mental health director for suicide prevention.
The call center serves from veterans and military personnel around the globe, and is the only one of its kind. Calls come 24-7 from soldiers, sailors, Marines, and veterans. They come from family members and friends concerned about their loved ones. When someone is suicidal, they can harm others, too.

The service now occupies several newly remodeled offices in a building on the Canandaigua VA Medical Center’s sprawling 1930s campus. Each shift demands 40 to 50 staff. Around the call center’s perimeter, responders work with a phone and computer in booth-like cubicles. In the room’s middle, health technicians at computers support the responders, helping locate everything from VA staff to police or ambulance services nearest the caller.

Sometimes, rescue crews have arrived too late to help or were unable to find the caller.

“The instances we know about are under 10,” said Kemp. “Sometimes we don’t know until much later, if at all.”

Why Canandaigua?

The creation of a suicide prevention call center at Canandaigua helped save the old medical center, which had been downsized and was slated for closure in 2003.

Although the Iraq war was just ramping up, reports about increasing numbers of military and veteran suicides made setting up something like a call center “a clear priority,” said former U.S. Rep. James Walsh.

At the time, Walsh was chairman of the appropriations subcommittee for military construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs. His chairmanship essentially brought the call center to Central New York.

“It could have gone anywhere in the country,” the former congressman from Syracuse said. “We kind of insisted that it be in Canandaigua.”

Staffing at the call center has grown from 13 to 300. Some, but not all, of the workers are veterans. Phone lines have increased from 3 to 30. The center has a crisis line chat service and a texting service, but responders try to move the conversation to a phone line, where they can hear the caller’s tone.

Besides handling calls from or about veterans, the crisis line fields calls from active duty soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, anywhere in the world.

Military suicides continue to increase. Last year, there were 349 suicides among active-duty troops, the most ever recorded, according to the Pentagon, up from 301 the year before. More American soldiers died from suicide last year than from combat in Afghanistan.

The suicide rate among active duty soldiers had historically been significantly lower than the rate for the general population.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan changed that. The military suicide rate has climbed from 10.3 per 100,000 in 2001 to 18.3 per 100,000 in 2009, according to a 2012 Surgeon General’s report.

Suicides among the Army National Guard have also increased, from 48 in 2009 to 101 in 2010. Military veteran suicide numbers are less firm. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that veterans account for roughly 20 percent of the deaths from suicide in America.

For both veterans and active duty soldiers, Marines and reserve soldiers, firearms are the most common means of suicide. Drug overdoses the most common means for attempts.

The Veterans Crisis Line in Canandaigua, a $20 million-a-year operation, is one piece of a comprehensive $83 million suicide prevention program within the Department of Veterans Affairs. Each VA center has a suicide prevention team.

With a caller’s consent, crisis line responders in Canandaigua contact the suicide prevention coordinator at the VA center nearest to the caller to arrange for follow-ups.

Crisis line responders can steer callers toward the VA’s program for homeless veterans if needed. Responders follow-up with callers weeks later to be sure they are getting help.

With active duty soldiers, responders will seek permission to contact the soldier’s chaplain or staff sergeant. When soldiers don’t want anyone in their unit to know they are suicidal, responders try to connect them with a private counselor.

The VA’s suicide prevention program has worked hard to promote its crisis line as a place to contact when it feels like there’s no one else to talk to. Nearly 25 percent of the crisis line’s budget pays for advertising and promotion, with the dominant message one that encourages people to ask for help before they are in crisis. Changing the name from Suicide Prevention Hotline to Veterans Crisis Line a year ago was part of that.

Call volume has grown, from 67,350 in 2008, the center’s first full year of operation, to 193,507 last year. But the percentage of rescue calls — those calls for which emergency responders get involved — has declined, from a high of 4.26 percent in 2010 to 2.7 percent in the first months of this fiscal year.

“It’s a lot if I do one rescue every two months,” said Stone. “Most of our calls are mental health issues. If you lost a limb, you might not tell me you lost a limb, but with the loss of a limb comes a mental health issue. “

Kemp, 58, the crisis line’s director, is a native of Carthage. She spent 20 years at the Denver VA. While there she conducted research about war experiences and their effects and ways to prevent suicide. Among other things, the Denver VA is a research center for suicide prevention.

In 2009, for her work with the crisis line, Kemp was named Federal Employee of the Year across all departments by the Partnership for Public Service, a not for profit. For that she received a $10,000 award and a medal presented to her by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki.

She cautioned that the effects of being at war, things like post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, can take time to become troublesome.

“Often these invisible wounds, these undiagnosed head and brain injuries, aren’t evident in the beginning,” she said. “I think that’s going to be a problem for a while. We need to be prepared for that.”

Contact Dave Tobin at 470-3277, dtobin@syracuse.com, or @dttobin

Need help?
Call 800-273-8255 and press #1 to contact the the national Veterans Crisis Line, a suicide hotline for military personnel and veterans.

Answering the bell
The number of calls to the national Veterans Crisis Line in Canandaigua in the past six fiscal years:
2012: 193,507
2011: 164,101
2010: 134,528
2009: 118,984
2008: 67,350
2007: 9,379

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