VA's blog grapples with possible suicide notes

New policy says blog readers should say if they spot a problem

The Veterans Affairs Department’s Vantage Point blog of three months is dealing with apparent suicide threats published as comments on its pages.

The VA opened a discussion on Vantage Point about veterans who recently posted comments that could be construed as suicidal. A VA blogger wrote that such comments are brought to the attention of mental health professionals, who assess the situation and determine whether or not to contact to the person who made the post.

Suicide notes left as public comments on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have received much media attention in recent months. One of the most publicized incidents involved a Rutgers University freshman who published a note on his Facebook page saying he was going to jump off the George Washington Bridge, which he did later that day. The aftermath of such events can cause dismay to readers who do not react quickly enough to intervene and stop the suicide.

Related story:

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“Since we’ve been seeing a few distressed comments here and on our Facebook and Twitter pages lately, I want to discuss the topic of suicide threats — both vague and explicit,” Alex Horton, one of the VA’s official bloggers, wrote on Vantage Point on Feb. 3.

“First, we don’t take any of these for granted and we don’t assume anyone is joking. We’re not oblivious to what’s going on in the lives of veterans, so we take each of these comments seriously. I’ve seen enough in the last few years to know the cost of not intervening,” he wrote.

Under the policy outlined by Horton, when VA bloggers become aware of comments expressing hopelessness or a reference to harming themselves, they immediately notify VA mental health professionals to assess the situation. Once notified, mental health staff members assess the comments and determine if making contact is necessary.

“Often, it is,” Horton added.

He also published some links to VA mental health resources and encouraged blog readers to report troubling comments to other veterans or to the VA through e-mail. While VA staffers monitor the website regularly, they may not see a new comment immediately, he added.

Ten people wrote comments on the new policy, and Horton replied to each one. Many were appreciative.

“It’s helped me to see people do care,” one commenter wrote on Feb. 3. “On a VA FB page, I said no one cares about me, I don’t know how many people responded to that, it was very encouraging.”

The next day another user wrote: “It is nice to see that some action will be taken to reach out and check on people that are reaching out by their despair.”

A few writers noted inadequate financial support as a factor contributing to the problem. “VA’s lack of medical and disability compensation exacerbates mental health problems. It’s like they say: 'We love you. Take these pills and be well.' They never speak to the hardships of other disabilities and the soldiers inability to work a normal job,” wrote a veteran on Feb. 4.

At least one of the veterans’ comments were removed from the blog by an administrator.

“I unapproved your comment encouraging others to commit suicide. We won’t have that here,” Horton wrote in response to a veteran on Feb. 5.

Veterans are known to have higher-than-average rates of suicide. According to figures released by the VA in 2010, 56 out of every 100,000 veterans, between the ages of 18 to 29, committed suicide in 2007. According to a CBS News report in 2007, the veterans’ rate was more than double that of Americans who did not serve.

The VA may be the first federal organization to start an anti-suicide communications policy on its blog. Web searches of the General Services Administration’s social media guidance and Defense Department’s social media hub showed no references to suicide policies.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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