United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Suicide Prevention: When Friends and Family of Veterans Reach Out
Woman on phone in front of a computer monitor
A lifeline responder connects with local Suicide Prevention Coordinators and emergency services to reach Veterans in need.
Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK.

Friends and family are the stalwart support network for deployed troops, but the loving letters and care packages from home may not be enough to bring a Veteran back in the same condition. The mental conditioning of basic training, coupled with the mental trauma of active duty, leaves many Veterans with a burden they have no capacity to share.

“When [friends or family] do call up, they’re looking for permission from us to either do a 911 call or for us to go ahead and call the Veteran,” says Jeff Stephenson, a responder at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s Canandaigua, N.Y., call center. “They’re worried about [the Veteran’s] safety but they’re also worried about ruining the friendship.”

The responder’s first objective is to assess the immediate danger of the situation before trying to speak with the Veteran directly. Call center supervisor Bill Cerveny encourages third party callers (friends and family of the Veteran) to place any blame on him if a Veteran reacts hostilely to the intervention. Cerveny finds 80-90 percent of the time the Veteran says he wants his family to understand what he’s going through.

If you or a Veteran you know needs assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime, any day at
1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go online to VeteransChat.

“You try to undo a soldier’s training,” Cerveny said. For example, he has to explain to some Veterans that the mantra “Marines don’t cry” no longer applies.

“You might be a great soldier, you might be a great Marine, but you’re a human being first and that’s what important. It doesn’t mean you’re crazy, it doesn’t mean you’re weak, it means you were exposed to some horrendous things that humans beings shouldn’t be exposed to.”

What becomes the ‘norm’ for returned Veterans and their families isn’t always safe. Habits like carrying a weapon around or aggressive behavior are potential high-risk scenarios.

Whether it takes multiple phone messages or convincing a friend it is time to drive them to the local VA, hotline responders provide a way for Veterans to get access to care.

“Really what we are — we’re in the business of hope,” Cerveny said. “They’re out of hope and they call us looking for us to tell them something, or give them some resource they hadn’t thought of.”

Coordinating directly with the local emergency room or VA Suicide Prevention Coordinator assures immediate care for Veterans and removes the anxiety of sitting in a waiting room. Responders also have a close rapport with local police and emergency services across the country.

“Part of this job is being a detective, being able to track people down with limited information,” said Stephenson.

A former squad member will call in after receiving a text from someone they served with that reads: “I’m thinking about killing myself.” Responders have also heard from the worried granddaughter of a World War II Veteran who has been acting quiet and depressed lately. Veterans may not be reaching out to the Lifeline responders directly, but Stephenson says their plea for help is still getting through.

“Every time that I finish a call, I know that I’ve made a difference in someone’s life.”

If you are concerned about your Veteran, you can reach help at 1-800-273-8255, and press 1 for Veterans.

  • If you’re not with the Veteran you’re calling about, make sure you have a way of contacting them (a phone number or address)
  • A physical description, including what they are wearing and what type of vehicle they are in, will help emergency services find them
  • Emergency personnel will need to know whether there are drugs or alcohol involved and whether they are armed
  • Hotline responders can access a Veteran’s medical records with their permission — have the Social Security Number or some other form of identification on hand.

By Kristen Moses, VA Staff Writer

Related links:
  Suicide Prevention Hotline
  Department of Defense Mental Health

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