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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Suicide Prevention Essential Part of Care for Returning Troops

May 6, 2008

HOUSTON - The Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC) has developed and expanded several programs to provide mental health crisis response, screening, counseling, and early treatment to meet the needs of our nation's newest veterans — the men and women who have served in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq (OIF).

Combat veterans are at higher risk for psychiatric problems than military personnel serving in noncombat locations, and more frequent and more intense combat is associated with higher risk. Many of the challenges facing these service members are stressors that have been identified and studied in veterans of previous wars.  In response, the MEDVAMC has developed world class expertise in treating mental health problems and responding to crisis situations.

An OEF/OIF combat veteran’s first contact with the MEDVAMC consists of two screenings: 1) a medical appointment with a general practitioner in a Primary Care Clinic; and 2) an appointment with a mental health professional to be checked for symptoms of a variety of mental health complaints including depression, suicide crisis, PTSD, anxiety disorder, substance abuse/dependence, and adjustment disorder.

Outside of this screening, veterans experiencing emotional and suicidal crisis, and their concerned family members or friends, have immediate access to emergency counseling services 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling the VA Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

The VA staff member receiving the call determines if emergency rescue services are needed, provides counseling, or sends an electronic consult to the Suicide Prevention Coordinator in the veteran’s immediate area. 

“I work to connect the veteran with mental health services at the DeBakey VA; one of five VA outpatient clinics in Beaumont, Conroe, Lufkin, Galveston, Texas City; one of two Houston Vet Centers; or community mental health services, all depending on the individual needs of the veteran,” said MEDVAMC Suicide Prevention Coordinator Loretta A. Coonan, L.C.S.W. Coonan can be reached at (713) 791-1414, ext. 3415.

Coonan also is responsible providing suicide risk training for both clinical and non-clinical staff throughout the MEDVAMC, performing on-going identification of patients at risk, and monitoring individual cases to maintain continuous care.

In addition to building national tracking and trending program so VA can learn more about veterans at risk and provide more targeted interventions, the VA Suicide Prevention Program identifies those veterans who have attempted suicide and works with Mental Health Patient Safety Teams to review the care provided and determine where improvements are needed.

The MEDVAMC also operates the VA Network Telecare Center Hotline at (713) 794-8985 or toll-free 1-800-639-5137. Registered nurses, social workers, and mental health professionals are ready to provide emergency counseling assistance and answer veteran health care questions 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

There has not been an inpatient suicide at the MEDVAMC for at least 25 years.  Of the 120,000 veterans enrolled for VA health care in southeast Texas, there are approximately six deaths due to suicide per year.

Suicide is the 11th most frequent cause of death in the U.S. Someone dies from suicide every 16 minutes. Suicidal ideas and attempts to harm oneself are the result of problems that may seem like they can not be fixed. When it seems like there is no hope, there is help and comfort from mental health professionals who uniquely understand the military experience. The MEDVAMC stands ready to reach out and support veterans at risk for suicide.

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