The Veterans Crisis Line is receiving a record number of cries for help, VA statistics show

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The Veterans Crisis Line is responding to a record number of cries for help, the Department of Veterans Affairs said, amid heightened mental health concerns for post-9/11 veterans and service members.

The suicide hotline received more than 88,000 calls, texts and chats in March, the most monthly contacts it has ever had, according to new federal data obtained by NBC News.

Last month’s figure is nearly 28% higher than the most active of any month in the first 10 months of the pandemic and 15% higher than in August 2021, when calls increased after Kabul fell to the Taliban.

Scott Mann, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, served three tours in Afghanistan and was a Green Beret for nearly two decades.Courtesy of Scott Mann

“We are facing a mental health tsunami,” said Scott Mann, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served three times in Afghanistan.

The number of annual contacts increased 15%, from about 775,000 in 2020 to nearly 896,000 in 2022, VA statistics show. According to the data, there were about 74,000 total contacts in March 2022, almost 67,000 in March 2021, and about 67,500 in March 2020.

In a statement, the VA said «there is no particular data that can be pointed to to fully explain the increases,» but that a combination of factors, including outreach campaigns and the launch of the new telephone number 988 for the crisis lineit probably led more people to use the hotline.

But many veterans said they believe the increase is directly related to the troubled end to the 20-year conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which they fought simultaneously and without conscription, meaning they were deployed more than any other generation and for longer. .

“Every time you went out, you went back in,” said Jonathan Cleck, a former Navy SEAL.

Now, Cleck says, after the longest war in American history, «everything we’ve been able to suppress is now coming to the surface.»

About 62% of combat veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan said they knew someone who was killed in service, according to a Pew Research Center Survey in 2011.

On top of that, a recently released survey conducted in part by America’s Veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan, a nonprofit advocacy group, found that nearly 49% of Veterans are experiencing trauma as a result of the events of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Army veteran Matt Zeller, 41, a senior adviser to the nonprofit, said he and many others are wracked with extreme guilt for leaving behind tens of thousands of Afghan interpreters and allies, an invisible wound that he called moral damage.

«It’s an injury to the soul,» said Zeller, who served nine months in Afghanistan in 2008. «And it’s the most insidious injury a veteran can sustain.»

Army veteran Matt Zeller served nine months in Afghanistan in 2008.
Army veteran Matt Zeller served nine months in Afghanistan in 2008.Courtesy Matt Zeller

“There is no pill that they can give you. There is no group or individual therapy session that you can attend. You can’t paint or sing your way out of this,» Zeller added. “That drives a person to take their own life.”

In the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Veterans Crisis Line saw a 98% increase in text messages for help compared to the same period a year earlier. VA officials told reporters at the time.

Among those fighting was Mann, the retired Army lieutenant colonel, who served as a Green Beret for some two decades.

Mann, 54, said he struggled with suicidal thoughts in 2013 when he retired from the military and began transitioning to civilian life after multiple deployments. Eight years later, he said, the end of the war in Afghanistan «brought me back to that place.»

“It got pretty dark for me,” Mann said. “The depression was made much worse by the way the war ended, by the way our leaders abandoned our allies, and by how we were left holding the phone.”

The volume of monthly contacts with the Veterans Crisis Line decreased after August 2021, but rose again around the one-year anniversary in the summer of 2022, new data shows. That time also coincided with the launch of the 988 crisis line phone number.

Then in January, the hotline handled a record 85,500 contacts before peaking at 88,000 contacts in March.

Lack of data on post-9/11 veteran suicides

More than 6,800 US servicemen were killed during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Defense Department. But because the VA doesn’t track ex-servicemember suicides by generation, there’s no way to know exactly how many post-9/11 veterans have taken their own lives.

That makes it hard to find effective solutions, said Cole Lyle, a former Marine and VA adviser who is now executive director of Mission Roll Call, a nonprofit veterans advocacy group.

«I don’t think you can address any issues until you have an idea of ​​the scope and scale of the issue,» Lyle said. «You have to have accurate data, and we don’t.»

In at least one widely cited estimate, a 2021 Brown University Research Paper He said more than 30,000 service members and veterans of the post-9/11 wars have committed suicide, more than four times the number who have died in combat.

While the last VA suicide prevention annual report does not distinguish deaths by generation, it appears to show a mental health crisis among the younger cohorts.

In 2020, the most recent year for which mortality data is available, suicide rates were highest among veterans ages 18 to 34. Suicide rates among that age group increased from 2019 to 2020, while they decreased for all other groups, according to the report.

Without accurate federal data, many veterans have been running personal accounts, by word of mouth in their social circles. Since the end of the war, Mann said he has lost three friends to suicide, including a fellow Green Beret and two combat infantrymen.

Zeller said he knew of five veterans who committed suicide just after the last US service member left Afghanistan in 2021. After that, Zeller had no courage to count any further.

«I stopped tracking,» he said. «I stopped asking the question.»

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741, or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

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