Showing a vet you care can make all the difference

UW Medicine research indicates that letters expressing care and empathy can reduce the rate of suicide and suicidal behaviors among recipients.

Veteran’s Day reminds us to reach out to military service members and show we care.

The evidence behind the power of caring messages is so strong that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs launched a program in early October to send caring letters to any veteran who contacted the Veterans Crisis Line.

In a news release, the department said it plans to roll out the program to an estimated 90,000 veterans over the next year.

Research has shown that letters expressing care and empathy can reduce the rate of suicide and suicidal behaviors for recipients. 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.

In 2019, JAMA Psychiatry published a study published of 658 randomized participants at three military installations. The study found that caring text messages reduced the rate of suicide attempts from 15 percent to 9 percent. The study was led by Kate Comtois, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

“Caring contacts is an entirely different way to engage and take care of suicidal individuals,” she said. “It can both prevent suicidal behavior and provide support over periods of stress and transition.”

This simple intervention builds on the work of Jerome Motto, a World War II soldier who became a psychiatrist and researcher. Letters from home helped boost his spirits during the war, and Motto used caring letters to conduct the first successful clinical trial to reduce suicide deaths.

Motto led a randomized controlled study published in Psychiatric Services in 2001 looking at the effect of following up with a group of 843 patients who attempted suicide and refused ongoing care. Persons in one group were contacted by letter at least four times a year for five years. The other group – the control group – received no further contact. Patients in the contact group had a lower suicide rate in all five years of the study. 

On Veteran’s Day, make a point to show a vet that you care. It really can make a difference.

-- Bobbi Nodell,, 206.543.7129

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Tags:suicide prevention

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