Several years ago, an Excelsior College academic advisor received a phone call from a student overwhelmed with academics. Once the student, a veteran, equated school to stress felt in combat, the seemingly routine call took a drastic turn and the advisor grew increasingly concerned over the caller’s mental state. After a few more minutes, the advisor took action, directing the student to specific mental health resources and asking the necessary questions to determine whether to expedite further assistance.
“It was disconcerting when the advisor received the call,” said Judy Reed, director of veteran services and outreach for Excelsior College’s Center for Military Education. “It was a call to action for us to make sure all our academic advisors and admissions counselors are as prepared to deal with a student in crisis.”
As a distance learning institution, Excelsior advisors seldom meet with students face-to-face, so it is critical that staffers are tuned in to clues they hear or observe in telephone and online communication with them. In 2011, the College turned to Dr. Joseph Hunter, suicide prevention coordinator for the Albany (NY) Stratton VA Medical Center, for assistance in training staff and he recently returned to Excelsior’s campus on February 6 to conduct a training session for all new academic advisors and other Excelsior staff who have direct student interaction.
Rising – and Falling – Suicide Rates among American Veterans
Suicide is not a problem limited to military personnel and veterans. Yet, for Excelsior where 40 percent of enrolled students are either on active duty or are veterans, the concern is especially acute. On average, there are 105 suicides each day in the U.S., 22 of which involve veterans who are twice as likely as civilians to take their own life. And among male veterans ages 18-25, the suicide rate has rapidly increased in recent years. Suicide among military service members was also highest among those who were divorced or separated from a spouse.
Mental health issues are a common trait among suicides, and with 936,000 troops diagnosed with at least one since 2000 – a 65 percent increase – it is perhaps not difficult to find correlation.
During the presentation, Dr. Hunter described the various factors that can precipitate a suicide such as alcohol or substance abuse; recent physical, emotional or financial loss; poor self-control; chronic pain or family history of suicide, among others. Access to firearms, common among veterans, is a critical risk concern for the VA.
Although the concern is real, there is a cause for optimism, due in large part to programs like Operation SAVE, the VA’s primary suicide prevention program. Suicide rates for male veterans (ages 36-64) who utilize Veteran Health Administration (VHA) services has decreased by 30 percent, as compared to a 60 percent rise for those who do not use the services.
“The VA has been concerned for several years now with the increasing rate of mental health problems among active duty and the suicide rate,” said Dr. Hunter in an interview with Excelsior Life following the event. “We are constantly adapting our suicide prevention programs to meet the needs, putting together different initiatives to improve what we do and we’re constantly looking at those suicides that occur and suicide attempts and learn from them to improve what we do.”
The VA continues to expand its prevention efforts at the national level through research, employee training, partnering with community based organizations, and setting up a Veterans Suicide Hotline/Chat line. Locally, the VA provides enhanced care and monitoring for high risk veterans and conducts community education and awareness sessions like those held at Excelsior.
Dr. Hunter’s 90-minute training session at Excelsior focused on Operation SAVE, utilizing a step-by-step tutorial on its different facets, as well as videos and case studies aimed at educating staff on the difficulties veterans experience, when transitioning back to civilian life. Operation SAVE stands for See the signs of suicidal behavior; Ask questions; Validate the veteran’s experience; and, Encourage treatment/Expedite a referral.
After an hour, Excelsior staff divided up into groups of six to participate in a role-playing game called “Responding to a Suicide Crisis on the Phone.” The scenarios placed each advisor into a call with a distraught, potentially suicidal student, and required them to identify warning signs and proceed with prevention best practices. Students practiced securing backup assistance, keeping the student on the line, asking specific questions to obtain critical information, and of course, determining the need and then expediting help (via the authorities or a close-by family member).
These scenarios teach staff to remain calm, demonstrate patience, and follow best practices, when (if) the situation arises.
“It’s reassuring knowing that Excelsior feels so strongly about bringing awareness to this issue for those employees who communicate with our students on a regular basis,” said Greg Eckl, Excelsior College admissions counselor, following the event. “We’ve learned valuable lessons that we can put into action with all our students, whether they are military or civilian.”
“At distance learning institutions like Excelsior College, academic advisors and admissions counselors are often the only consistent, direct contact between student and school,” added Reed.
Dr. Hunter will be back at Excelsior on March 27 for another training session, this time for a refresher course for those who have undergone training in the past.
In the meantime, the VA is encouraging veterans experiencing thoughts of suicide, to reach them directly by visiting www.suicidepreentionlifeline.org or calling the Veterans Crisis Line (1-800) 273-8255. A crisis line representative can also be accessed by text at 838255.