Story by Jennifer Scales on 09/12/2019"I need to see a suicide doctor."
Those were the seven words recently uttered by a Veteran entering the main lobby of the Wm. Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center, which put Red Coat Ambassador, Frank Vass of the Columbia VA Health Care System, into intervention/action mode.
As Vass looked at the Vietnam Era Veteran, adorned with badges and ribbons from his service time, there seemed to be a look a hopelessness and finality in the Veteran's face that Vass easily recognized with his own compassion and empathy.
With a determination of concern, Vass immediately began talking with the Veteran and became his sole escort for the duration of his visit to the Columbia VAHCS Mental Health section, where he met with staff psychologist, Dr. Peter Warren.
Warren, a native of Augusta, Ga., is the program manager for the suicide program, where he manages operations of suicide prevention for the Columbia VAHCS team.
With the staff's proactive approach and this Veterans call for help, the outcome was positive in this #BeThere instance.
The suicide prevention team at the Columbia VAHCS consists of eight positions which include the suicide prevention coordinator, psychologists, social workers and case managers who oversee day-to-day identifications of high-risk persons.
"The providers also let us know of those who might be at risk also," Warren said. "Our team reaches out to Veterans identified to get help."
It's not only the policies and procedural training in the facility that supports suicide prevention for the Columbia VAHCS. "We have a collaboration with community members of the South Carolina Air National Guard, Fort Jackson, Red Cross and others which make all of us successful in our objectives," Warren said.
The Columbia VAHCS suicide prevention team has a unique perspective to their efforts. "We have all been cross-trained on each person's respective job, so there is never a shortage of knowledge in case one of us is unavailable," Warren added. "We tend to have our own specialized areas, but everyone is a clinician with licensed independence."
Having been in Veterans Affairs since 2014, Warren has seen changes in the program. "The VA has put the money where their mouth is, so to speak," he began. "The VA totally supports the mission of suicide prevention and I have seen a massive influx of positions, whereby we have been able to expand our current roles and become free to engage our community partners."
Warren is also particularly proud of one of the medical center's local success in suicide prevention. "We have created the Military Suicide Prevention Panel of South Carolina which was started by our suicide prevention team in the Columbia VAHCS and the South Carolina National Guard," Warren said. "In this team, we have incorporated the active duty components, Army Reserve, South Carolina Department of Mental Health, and the national American Foundation for Suicide Prevention organization."
The job in suicide prevention is to reach a person before the crisis happens. But in all honesty, Warren and those in like positions across the country do experience losses.
"If you are like me, you remember all the people you lose," Warren said. "But there are those you catch you in time, and you remember them also."
Warren reflected on an elderly 70-plus year-old-Veteran who lives in a rural area of the state. The Veteran was also taking care of his terminally ill spouse, whom he had been married to for many years. The Veteran would make the drive in to the VA for his normal appointments, but his concern was the care for his spouse. One night he made the call to the suicide prevention hotline and briefly spoke to one of the counselors. The follow-up call was one that Warren made, and he could detect the sound of despair in the Veterans tone.
"It was as if he wanted to be the one to die to give his wife some sort of peace," Warren said. "But we began to talk about other parts of his lifehappier times. We spoke about sports and his time in the service. From that call, we developed a relationship that has continued even after the death of his wife. Every now and then, he still calls for me and we will just have a general conversation, like old friends, while I still monitor him. Sometimes it's all about having a good talk for some patients, like this Veteran."
If you are in crisis or know someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.