Military suicides are a national public health concern, especially as suicide rates continue to rise. And, according to Capt. Paul Hammer, director for the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health (DCoE), “everyone owns this problem.” Hammer, who opened the conference, urged attendees to engage with leaders and speakers as part of the ongoing march to end warrior and veteran suicide. “This is our challenge to overcome,” he said.
It was a theme echoed throughout the day by service leaders, key department officials and government representatives as they discussed the work they are doing to provide service members and veterans with the support, treatment and care they need and deserve.
Day one of the fourth annual DoD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference, in Washington D.C., kicked off to a crowd of hundreds as senior leaders from the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) spoke to health care providers, military leaders and mental health specialists about the need to end suicides and reduce stigma for service members and veterans seeking mental health care help. The theme for this year’s conference is “Back to Basics: Enhancing the Well-Being of our Service Members, Veterans and their Families."
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Jonathan Woodson emphasized that “vigilance matters” and that a strategy to end military suicides must involve entire communities coming together. He urged the crowd to be visible and relentless, and to share what they know with the communities they serve, including knowing the warning signs and how to direct others for help. “Everyone needs to know what to look for,” he said.
“One suicide is one suicide too many,” said VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel, who urged the need to create a “zero-tolerance policy of suicide.”
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki highlighted the partnership between the Defense Department and VA to understand contributors and challenges to veterans’ suicides, including how to assist service members as they transition to veterans.
“We must end suicides,” Shinseki said, especially “among some of the most dedicated, loyal and courageous people I know.” The challenge is knowing when and where to intervene. Shinseki said VA Veterans Crisis Line has rescued nearly 22,000 from potential suicide and highlighted its texting and chatting services, which provides anonymity to those seeking help.
Throughout the day, service leaders and government officials discussed an all-hands approach to suicide prevention, including programs in place to assist warriors through technology, training program, stress management and chaplains. Their work also includes looking at the rate of suicide factors on families and the support they receive.
A key focal point discussed at the conference was the introduction of new technologies to manage stress and assist during a personal crisis.
The National Center for Telehealth and Technology (T2), a DCoE center which focuses on technologies for psychological health, discussed its development and testing of a Virtual Hope Box smartphone application for reducing suicidal ideation. The new application aims to help those in crisis by redirecting their attention toward good reasons to live through the use of downloaded cherished memories such as personal photos, music, videos, reminders and recorded messages. The application also includes distraction, relaxation and inspirational messages to help a person when he or she needs it the most. “We carry around our lives through personal cell phones," said Dr. Nigel Bush with T2, who noted smartphones are increasingly being carried by service members “who are highly mobile.”
Dr. Peter Lewis and Dr. Gregory Rimoldi, from the VA, discussed increasing resiliency in high-risk suicidal veterans through an interactive text messaging study. Text messaging, done through both cell phones and email, tested the use of sending appointment and medication reminders, check-in questions as well as motivational/inspirational messages to a user group made up of veterans suffering from psychological health issues.
User feedback of the study was positive. Participants said text messaging “came at needed times” and helped to reduce feelings of loneliness and alienation, while several expressed appreciation for the medication reminders. Check-in questions caused participants to reflect on how they were doing in that particular moment. “It forced me to be honest with myself, said one participant. “Text messages are not intrusive like a phone,” said Rimoldi. “There is an increased comfort level for participants.”
New media is also playing a key role at the VA. The agency, which has answered more than 610,000 calls since its Veterans Crisis Line – 800-273-8255 (Press 1) – launched in 2007, increased its outreach efforts to offer an online veterans chat service in July 2009. To date, the confidential service has helped 54,000 people. Recently, the VA added a texting service as part of its Veterans Crisis Line. The service – 838255 (VETALK) – is confidential and free, and more than 1,700 have been helped. Additionally, VA and Facebook collaboration began this May. Facebook users who are concerned about a veteran or service member’s post can report content of posts to Facebook, which then will send the user information to the Veterans Crisis Line/Chat Service and texting services for follow up.
The annual Suicide Prevention Conference is jointly hosted this year by DCoE and the VA to bring together top minds in suicide prevention, military health and family advocacy, and to discuss ways to enhance the quality of life for service members, veterans and their families. The conference offers attendees three conference tracks to participate — clinical, research and practical application.
DCoE is live streaming each day of the conference and is live tweeting using the hashtag #suicideprevention.