The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is going to send 90,000 caring letters out to veterans have contacted its Veterans Crisis Line (VCL).
This mass mailing is focused on suicide prevention intervention through personal messages of support, and aligns with the 2019 VA/DOD Clinical Practice Guidelines, which outlines the assessment, healthcare provider evaluation and management of patients at risk of suicide.
“This is one of the largest caring letters programs ever implemented. We’re planning to send letters to over 90,000 Veterans over a 12-month period of time” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “In the first 11 weeks of the program VCL has mailed Caring Letters to almost 30,000 Veterans.”
A study published in the journal Psychiatric Services in 2001 found that patients at risk of suicide who maintained a long-term contact with care providers or health care professionals had a lower suicide rate than patients who did not have those relationships.
The study focused on an experiment conducted on 3,005 psychiatric hospital patients in San Francisco between 1969 and 1974. Each of the patients had been admitted for depression or suicidal tendencies. After the patients were discharged, psychiatrist Jerome Motto and statistician Alan Bostrom split the individuals into two groups.
Patients in the contact group received handwritten letters from one of the professionals at the hospital who they had previous contact with. One of the letters was posted in a report from Stanford SPARQ, and reads:
It has been some time since you were at the hospital, and we hope things are going well for you. If you wish to drop us a note we would be glad to hear from you.
Letters like this were sent out to patients in the contact group 8 times in the first year, then 4 times a year for the following 4 years. Patients in the control group were not sent letters.
During the 5-year experiment, nearly a quarter of those in the contact group responded to the caring letters with messages of their own.
“You will never know what your little notes mean to me. I always think someone cares about what happens to me, even if my family did kick me out,” one said.
“It gives me great pleasure to know that someone is concerned,” said another.
“Two years after leaving the hospital—the span of time when at-risk patients are most likely to kill themselves—only 1.80% of patients in the contact group had committed suicide, compared to 3.52% of patients in the control group,” Stanford SPARQ reports. “Even 13 years after hospital discharge, patients who had received letters from the hospital still had lower rates of suicide than those who had not.”
Today, an average of 22 veterans a day choose to take their own lives. This caring letters initiative is hoped to bring that number down.
“Caring letters are thought to reduce suicide by promoting a feeling of caring connection and reminding Veterans that help is available if they need it,” the VA reports.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.