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A New HBO Documentary, Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1

Bobbie O'Brien
WUSF Public Media

Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives.  That's according to a report released earlier this year by the Department of Veterans Affairs.  And that number could actually be higher. 

The rate of veteran-suicide is much higher than for the general population.

The Veterans Crisis Line was established six years ago to try and slow the flood of veteran suicides.

A new HBO documentary, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, takes us past the cubicles and down the hallways at the Veterans Crisis Line Center based in Canandaigua, N.Y.

There, you hear the piercing ring of telephone and catch snippets of conversations with the first responders trying to nudge that suicide rate down:

“Thank you for calling the Veterans Crisis Line, my name is Lewis. How can I help you?”

“… I know you said you have a knife nearby you. Do you agree to not use that knife while I put you on hold?”

“… What you’re telling me is that people have to do something drastic before they get help.”

Responders answer calls 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The hotline is not just for veterans considering suicide. Any veteran experiencing any kind of distress can call at any time.

“Whether they’re dealing with relationship issues, problems finding work, problems just adjusting back into civilian life, there’s a ton of things they could run into and they need to understand they’re not alone and these things can be worked out,” said Jason Edlin, an Army veteran who has worked as a Veterans Crisis Line responder for almost five years.

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
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Kitchen magnets and rests for motorcycle kick-stands are among the handouts that promote the Veterans Crisis Line.

Edlin was there when HBO filmed the documentary. He isn’t in the movie but says it delivers a message the public needs to hear.

I hope that people can better understand what veterans go through,” Edlin said.  

The Veterans Crisis Line fields more than 22,000 calls a month.

Since 2001, more veterans have died by their own hand than in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while suicide has been increasing, the deputy director of suicide prevent at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Caitlin Thompson, likes to point out some distinctions.

“We’re finding that of those veterans and service members who die by suicide less than half of them have actually have been deployed,” Thompson said. “So, we can’t just put it on ‘well they were deployed and they all saw combat and that’s why they’re dying’ because that’s actually been shown to not be the case.”

Thompson said suicide is complex. Many veterans and service members have the same reasons as the general population for killing themselves such as financial and relationship problems. But military service can compound those issues.

“We’re working so hard at the VA and at the DoD (Department of Defense) as well in our suicide prevention effort,” Thompson said. “Another thing I want to bring up is the culture of using firearms in a veteran population. And it’s been shown that veterans die by suicide by firearms far more than the general population. Veterans and service members are very comfortable with firearms and so gun safety is also a very important consideration as we continue to look ahead.”

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
A number to share with veterans, service members and their families.

Thompson helped the Department of Defense set up their Suicide Prevention Office and she spent four years as one of the psychologists overseeing the responders, the people who answer the Veterans Crisis Line.

“It’s such a unique environment in that way. It’s a very emotional environment to work in. it’s very high stress,” Thompson said.

The HBO documentary shows  supervisors comforting  responders after some of the more difficult calls.

Thompson said that’s the value of the documentary. It shows veterans the compassion of the responders on the other end of the phone.

We want veterans and service members to pick up the phone and call and at times it may be very, very hard for people to do that,” Thompson said.”But I’m hoping that after seeing some of the faces on the other end of the phone and hearing some of the stories that that will help promote the crisis line as an option.”

That option also extends to family members and friends of veterans and to service members. The Crisis Line is open to them. And there is also live online chats and texting.

The HBO documentary, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, airs again Sunday at 6:00 a.m., 3:15 p.m.; Nov. 19 at 10:45 a.m. and Nov. 23 at 12:15 p.m. HBO2 playdates: Nov. 18 at 9:30 a.m. and Nov. 26 2:10 p.m.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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