They’re the people on the front lines, to help those returning from the front lines.

On the heels of a military report detailing a record amount of suicides in the armed forces, representatives from Missouri VA Hospitals talk about strategies to combat the problem. It was just one part of the suicide prevention conference in Jefferson City, which was scheduled well before the Army issued a report that 160 active duty military members committed suicide in 2009. 

Hollie Hudlow, the suicide prevention coordinator at the VA hospital in Poplar Bluff, says the VA has recently implemented a new model for getting military members support; not just being reactive to those that seek out help.

“It’s sort of a way to be a little bit in your face about, ‘OK what is your suicide risk and do we need to be looking at treating your suicide risk more intensely?’ The doctors are really communicating about that and it’s really fantastic,” Hudlow told attendees in a breakout session at the conference.

“The veteran knows that we’re concerned about them before they’re discharged and he or she knows that it’s very important to us that we see them in that first week. We don’t just hand them now a slip of paper that says your appointment is with so and so and just kind of hope they show up,” Hudlow said.

She says the ‘old model’ also didn’t do a very good job of following up with veterans. She says that’s been addressed, too; and goes over a typical line of questioning in a follow-up exam.

“Let’s talk about why you were admitted in the first place. What’s been the course of treatment, what medications have changed? What new issues have come up? What have you been working on with your social worker, with your nurse? And what are your goals? What is important to you that you get in treatment, and what are you concerned about when you get home?” Hudlow said.

Kathryn Crews holds the same position at Hudlow, except at the Columbia VA hospital. The positions were created in 2007, and Crews says this has been a known problem for some time.

“There was a mental health initiative that came out about four years ago which was the impetus of hiring the suicide prevention coordinators and setting up the mental health so that our soldiers coming back will have easier access to them,” Crews said.

Even as much as three years ago, Crews says, it would have been rare for a veteran to seek out help. Now she says it’s becoming more common for them to be open to receiving treatment.

“We’re trying to lessen the stigma of suicide so people won’t be embarrassed or fell bad about seeking psychiatric or behavior health help,” Crews said. “Not just necessarily for veterans, for all suicidal people, that is a goal. That people, when they know that they’ve identified their warning signs or risk factors, that they seek help or treatment for those issues.”

Crews says post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries greatly increase the risk of suicide.

“Apparently TBI’s are very prevalent, so much so that soldiers are giving in a nickname of ‘getting your bell rang,’” Crews said.

She also says the fact that many soldiers have been deployed numerous times increases their chances of encountering suicidal risk factors.

“Increased deployments mean many times increased depression,” Crews said.

AUDIO: Ryan Famuliner reports [1 min MP3]