September is suicide awareness month, and I sat down with my colleagues at Detroit VA to ask five questions about Veterans’ mental health resources, the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, and the prevention of Veteran suicides and other accidental deaths. Thanks to Katrina BeShears, LMSW, CAADC, and Christina Mariani, LMSW, CAADC Detroit VA Community Engagement and Partnership Coordinators. Also, to Bethany Piccinato, LMSW, CAADC Detroit VA Suicide Prevention Coordinator.
Veterans’ Mental Health
1. I know of a Veteran who isn’t getting help but needs it. How do they start the process?
The first step is to get registered before determining eligibility. You will need to bring a copy of your DD-214, proof of income, photo identification, and marriage certificate (if applicable) to the registration department at your local VA hospital. You can also start this process online at www.va.gov/health-care/how-to-apply. Each Veteran’s experience is different, so each Veteran’s benefits will be unique as well. Also, if you have private insurance or Medicare/Medicaid, that does not automatically prevent you from being eligible for VA healthcare; VA coverage supplements primary insurance.
2. What types of behavioral health care are available for Veterans?
Each VA is different. Detroit VA has a full range of services encompassing inpatient/residential, partial hospitalization, and outpatient levels of care. Services include, but are not limited to, medication management; evidence-based therapies; group services; peer support; psychosocial support; specialty care programs for substance use, PTSD, and military sexual trauma; resources for those experiencing intimate partner violence; and homeless services. Veterans will be assessed for what avenue is most appropriate for referral. When indicated, Veterans will be referred to the community to further accommodate their needs.
3. Can you tell me about the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline and the billboards I see about gun locks?
Yes! We are so excited about the billboards across the country! Our national office is working with states and local communities to bring awareness to secure firearm storage and the importance of doing our part to prevent Veteran suicides and other accidental deaths. When discussing preventing suicide, we often emphasize the importance of increasing time and space between one’s decision to die and one’s action or attempt. Gun locks are one way we approach this goal, among many other secure storage recommendations.
The VA is glad to provide complementary cable locks to Veterans and community partners to further the goal of decreasing suicide deaths. Please reach out to your local VA hospital to see how to obtain cable locks. You can also find more information about additional storage options and recommendations online at Lethal Means Counseling: Recommendations for Providers (va.gov). You may also see “988” printed on the gun locks. This is our new crisis line phone number. Further, the first prompt option is for Veterans and service members to “press 1” for the Veterans Crisis Line (VCL).
The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (“press 1” for Veterans Crisis Line) is available 24/7, and when you are connected to the VCL, you will speak with a Veteran-trained responder – many are Veterans themselves.
Responders can help to de-escalate and problem-solve, as well as be a kind, listening ear during a Veteran’s mental health crisis or a difficult time. If the caller is agreeable to a referral while on the phone, the responder will also connect the caller to local VA staff for outreach within the following business day. Also, we encourage family, friends, and neighbors to feel comfortable calling on behalf of a Veteran they are concerned about who may need assistance.
4. There has been a lot in the news about Veteran suicides. Has there been an improvement?
Yes. Historically, Veterans are at a higher risk for suicide than the general population, and we continue to improve our services and approach to suicide prevention to combat this risk. Our most recent data from 2020 are encouraging and indicate that Veteran suicide rates decreased overall from the previous year and have continued to decrease since 2018. This lets us know that our efforts are effective; however, we know one suicide is too many. We continue to work diligently together with our communities. As a part of this work, VA has implemented Suicide Prevention 2.0, including Community Based Interventions, which has improved our connection with community partners, encouraged combining our efforts to increase protective factors and education, and decreased suicidal ideation, attempts, and deaths.
5. How do we learn more or get involved in a Veteran-focused event?
Many great events are happening in all areas for Veterans and their loved ones. Please refer to your local county Veterans Affairs office, your state agency (Michigan’s is Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency 1-800-MICH-VET), or your local VA hospital staff. The three of us work out of the Detroit VA hospital, which covers Oakland, Macomb, Wayne, St. Clair, and Sanilac Counties of Michigan. We are always open to expanding our network of partners and can provide the gun locks we mentioned free of charge. We can also provide contacts for other VA staff and locations. Our contact information is: