By Michelle Sartor
A national hotline for veterans and current military members based in New Jersey may be one of the programs to benefit from a recent allocation of $40 million in the 2012 federal budget for military suicide prevention efforts.
Vets4Warriors, which went live Dec. 13 throughout the U.S., allows current and former members of the military and their families to contact peer counselors 24 hours a day, seven days a week through a phone call, e-mail or live chat online. Every counselor is a veteran and the idea is that veterans and service men and women will feel more comfortable speaking with someone who has a better idea of their experiences.
Vets4Warriors grew out of a program launched in New Jersey for law enforcement officers and their families more than a decade ago called Cop2Cop. The program, funded by the state and run by the University Behavioral Healthcare (UBHC), trains retired police officers to be peer counselors, similarly to how Vets4Warriors hires and trains veterans to counsel current and former military members.
After the success of Cop2Cop, the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs asked that a similar program be created for members of the military. Six years ago, UBHC created NJVet2Vet for service members living in New Jersey.
Christopher Kosseff, president and CEO of UBHC for UMDNJ, said NJVet2Vet was piloted in 2005 and became a very successful regular program supported by the state. Kosseff said the Department of Defense asked if the NJVet2Vet program could be extended to the Fort Hood military base in Texas after the base saw a large number of suicides and a shooting that killed 13. When the program went live in Texas about a year ago, the name changed to Vets4Warriors. Once that happened, Kosseff said the Department of Defense and the National Guard began talks with the UBHC to make the program national.
Vets4Warriors could get additional funding this year since $40 million is now allocated in the 2012 federal budget for military suicide prevention. New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt had pushed for the funding, citing the high number of suicides by military personnel.
“The epidemic of suicides among our veterans is measureable in very grim numbers,” Holt said. “Before this day is out, 18 more veterans will have taken their own lives. That is the daily average, it is intolerable and it has to stop.”
The money will support suicide prevention efforts, including outreach to soldiers and veterans through television, radio and social media.
Kosseff and Vets4Warriors Director Maria Falca-Dodson said they are hopeful the program receives some of the funding.
“We think we have a good enough track record in New Jersey. This is certainly not a pilot within New Jersey,” Falca-Dodson said. “This is a rollout of a national program that we predict will have great success.”
Since Vets4Warriors went live last month, Falca-Dodson said the group has received more than 380 calls from around the country, almost 780 hits to the website from as far away as Asia and almost 80 live chats. The organization has 43 employees. All 26 peer counselors are veterans who were hired and trained to work for Vets4Warriors. All work out of the call center in Piscataway. Falca-Dodson said half of the seven clinicians are also former military members. She said the employees are diverse, with all races and ethnic groups represented and 20 to 25 percent of the emplyees are female.
Falca-Dodson said the vast majority of calls have been individuals calling to ask a vet for information or referrals to other areas of support, such as financial, employment or legal. She explained if there is a suggestion of suicide or homicide to a peer counselor, a clinician will become involved. If the caller allows the clinician to take over the call, that will happen said Falca-Dodson, but if the caller doesn’t feel comfortable with that, the clinician may assist the peer counselor by listening to what the peer counselor is saying. Vets4Warriors maintains the confidentiality of the caller, Falca-Dodson said, by not allowing the clinician to hear the caller’s words without permission.
“The goal usually is to try to transfer that individual to the national Veterans Crisis Hotline,” Falca-Dodson said, adding that Vets4Warriors has done a number of transfers to that organization, especially around the holidays.
Kosseff, who has spent his entire career in mental health, said suicide prevention should start long before an individual is seriously considering taking his or her own life.
“When someone gets to the point of seriously contemplating suicide, it can often be very difficult to get them off that course and to help prevent that suicide. I think the chances of success of avoiding suicide and other catastrophic events such as homicide are much better if you try and intervene in the natural history of a problem earlier on in the problem’s development,” Kosseff said. “The goal of Vets4Warriors is to really help provide the support early on when small issues are brewing to try and prevent them from becoming crises.”
While Kosseff and Falca-Dodson aren’t certain Vets4Warriors will receive some of the $40 million, they believe the funding is necessary and are encouraged by the action.
“Whether the money comes to us or someone else, I think it’s desperately needed services that it will be purchasing,” Kosseff said.
To contact Vets4Warriors, visit the organization’s website or call 1-855-VET-TALK (1-855-838-8255).