About every 11 minutes, someone in the United States commits suicide. Let me put this in a better perspective.

In the time it takes your family to finish an hour-long dinner, six people leave us. In the time it took to watch a two-hour film, 11 people disappeared. In the time it takes you to watch a three-hour football game, 16 families are left with a hole they can never fill.

Many people are reluctant to talk about suicide or the mental health and addiction crises that can lead to it. But the only way to solve the problem is to face it head on and treat it like other serious health threats like cancer.

September is Suicide Prevention Month, when public health officials and advocates invest more in raising awareness and promoting solutions.

This year, these promotions contain good news for a change. Little progress is being made. Even small profits are a big deal.

Good news comes from two directions: reducing veteran suicidesand get more people to seek help.

The latter is due to changes to the national crisis hotline. This has resulted in more people using the service and getting help faster than before.

In July, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number was simplified to 988 to make it easier to remember and call. The hotline used to have a 10-digit number of 1-800-273-8255 (it still works).

In August, its first full month of operation, the 988 line answered 152,000 more calls, texts and online chats than the previous hotline last August. That’s a great sign – and one that unfortunately shows just how great the need is.

The hotline can also be reached by texting 988 or via online chat at 988lifeline.org. It works 24 hours a day, every day. It is staffed by counselors from more than 200 local crisis centers across the country.

The helpline helps people who are thinking about suicide, who are suffering from a mental health or emotional crisis, or a substance abuse crisis.

People can also call if they are looking for advice or support for a loved one in trouble.

The move to 988 involved investing more public resources in crisis centers to enable them to handle the expected increase in calls. The first data show that the investment has also paid off.

Phone calls, texts and chats were answered in an average of 42 seconds in August, down from 2.5 minutes last August.

In other good news, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported Monday that the number of suicides among veterans declined for the second year in a row.

It said that in 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, the VA reported 6,146 veteran suicides. This is 343 less than in 2019.

From 2018 to 2019, there was also a decrease of 307 deaths. Two years of data moving in the right direction is a sign that VA and others can do more, though the numbers need to be put into perspective.

Veterans are much more likely to take their own lives than people who have not served in the military. In 2020, the rate was 57% higher.

And veteran suicides often go unreported, so the number of people we’ve lost is probably higher.

In Pennsylvania, the VA reported 240 veteran suicides in 2020, compared to 270 in 2019 and 261 in 2018.

VA has opportunities to better serve veterans. Only about 40% of those who took their own lives in 2020 participated in the VA health care system, which offers resources for mental health, substance abuse and other needs.

The more veterans he can get into the system, the better chance his programs will be able to reach them.

I believe that one of the most effective ways to address the suicide crisis is for those who have lost loved ones to come forward and share their loss in hopes that others will not have to suffer.

The Lehigh Valley is fortunate to have many of those quarterbacks.

I have written several times about the work of Mike and Sarah Warg of Mahoning Township. They made it their life’s mission raise awareness about veteran suicide, after the loss of their son, Army Spc. Michael Vargo, 2013.

Others work as part of the newly created Lehigh County Suicide Prevention Coalition.

It is good to see that some progress has been made in the fight against suicide. There is still a lot of work ahead, so it is important to build on this momentum.

Morning Call columnist Paul Muschick can be reached at 610-820-6582 or at paul.muschick@mcall.com


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