More than 42,000 Americans die by suicide every year; with more than 6,000 Veterans. And Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than civilians. Suicide rates have been steadily climbing for several years, and suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., totaling more than twice as many deaths as homicide. Preventing suicide among Veterans is VA’s top clinical priority. VA staff use data to continually improve and tailor suicide prevention efforts to reach all Veterans — not just those identified as at risk.
Homelessness is a significant risk factor for suicide; recent VA research shows that Veterans with a history of homelessness are five times more likely to attempt suicide than other Veterans. Among Veterans who are considered at high risk for suicide, 50 percent have had some sort of contact with a VA homeless program. Because of these troubling statistics, VA works aggressively to connect homeless and at-risk Veterans to both homeless programs and suicide prevention programs.
In addition to providing clinical care to Veterans who have had thoughts of suicide, the VA Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention creates resources to combat this public health issue among Veterans. One such resource is REACH VET (Recovery Engagement and Coordination for Health – Veterans Enhanced Treatment). REACH VET uses clinical and administrative data in Veterans’ medical records to identify and proactively engage in care those who may be at risk for hospitalization, illness, suicide, and other adverse outcomes. In short, REACH VET works to help inform VA providers of the most vulnerable Veterans under their care.
Another VA initiative to bolster suicide prevention efforts is S.A.V.E. This training is available online and provided by VA suicide prevention coordinators to staff and community members who can help identify Veterans who may be at risk for suicide and help them find appropriate treatment. Community members who participate in the training gain a better understanding of the scope of the suicide problem in the U.S. and among Veterans, learn to recognize the warning signs of someone who may be thinking about suicide, and learn what steps to take to connect them with care.
Dr. Keith Harris, the national director of clinical operations for VHA Homeless Programs, believes that providing S.A.V.E. training to Homeless Programs staff, grantees, and contractors will have a significant impact on VA’s suicide prevention mission.
“By taking S.A.V.E. training outside the walls of VA to the general public and to partner organizations that serve Veterans, we increase the likelihood that Veterans who are thinking about harming themselves will be immediately directed to trained professionals who can help prevent disasters from occurring,” Harris said. “There’s no shortage of people who want to help prevent suicide among Veterans. S.A.V.E. training provides non-clinicians with the tools to help.”
Veterans in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a Veteran in crisis, can call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, text to 838255, or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat. In addition, every VA medical center has a Suicide Prevention Coordinator (SPC) to make sure Veterans receive needed counseling and services. Find your local SPC at www.VeteransCrisisLine.net/resourcelocator.
- Visit VA’s Homeless Veterans website to learn about employment initiatives and other programs for Veterans exiting homelessness.
- Refer Veterans who are homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless to their local VA medical center, where VA staff are ready to assist, or urge them to call 877-4AID-VET (877-424-3838).
Monica Diaz is the executive director of the VHA Homeless Programs Office. For more than five years, she served as a governor’s appointee at the Department of California Veterans Affairs at the largest Veterans home in the nation – the Yountville Veterans Home. Diaz has a master’s degree in health care management administration from the University of Phoenix and an undergraduate degree in Forensic Psychology, with honors, from the University of Puerto Rico.