U.S. Army veteran Spencer Sullivan, right, and Abdulhaq Sodais, who served as a translator in Afghanistan, both hug and cry during an interview in Bremen, Germany, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. Sullivan is trying to help Sodais get asylum after he had to flee to Germany. Credit: Peter Dejong / AP

The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112.

It has been very hard to watch events unfold in Afghanistan the past few weeks. Based on perspectives shared here in Maine and around the country, and based on the increased volume of calls, texts and chats with the veterans crisis hotline, it has been especially hard for many veterans.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and as reported by Stars and Stripes, there was a surge of calls, texts and online chats to the Veterans Crisis Line in the last two weeks of August. Compared to the same two weeks last year, there was a 98 percent increase in texts, a 40 percent increase in chats and a 7 percent increase in calls. Veterans or their family and friends can reach the line by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1, by texting to 838255, or by chatting online.

VA officials have pointed to several things driving this uptick, including the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the upcoming anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. They also say the numbers reflect more people reaching out to get help.

This increase in volume should come as no surprise given recent events. And it should emphasize the need for the VA to be both proactive and comprehensive in its efforts to connect veterans with services, particularly mental health services.

A large, bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Sen. Susan Collins, have urged the VA to do just that. The group of more than 30 senators sent a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough encouraging the agency to “quickly develop a comprehensive outreach plan to connect Afghanistan and Global War on Terrorism veterans to VA benefits and services.”

Edward Pontius, a Maine physician and psychiatrist who previously led a Department of Veterans Affairs post-traumatic stress disorder clinical team, explained in a recent column in the BDN how conflict can continue to impact veterans long after its over. That included a critical point about how veterans ( like other people who experience trauma) do not all process their experiences the same way.

“I learned that long after a conflict is over for the rest of us, some veterans continue to experience their war in nightmares or in flashbacks for the rest of their lives,” Pontius wrote. “Many get better. Some, however, feel so damaged that they withdraw from family and others, or try to find relief in alcohol or drugs.”

Collins and her colleagues noted that the VA has already sent out information to veterans encouraging them to seek help if they need it. They called that “a first step” and asked the VA to come up with a plan that includes sharing “detailed information on mental health services” through digital correspondence, social media, phone call and text message outreach. They also called for emphasis on connecting veterans with local support and resources.

“Especially given the constant media coverage and disturbing images coming out of Afghanistan, we ask for your commitment to developing a comprehensive outreach plan for our Global War on Terrorism, and specifically our Afghanistan veterans,” the group wrote. 

Matthew Miller, the national director of the VA’s suicide prevention program, spoke with Stars and Stripes about the increase in crisis line volumne.

“I think it’s really hard to speak for veterans as a whole because veterans are an extremely diverse group,” he said. “[The hotline] gives a small sample, but a meaningful look at what’s occurring within the veteran population.”

This once again emphasizes the importance of comprehensive outreach. It is because veterans are not a monolithic group that the VA must emphasize a continued message of support across various platforms to meet veterans where they are and where they are comfortable engaging.

Travis Mills, a Maine Army veteran who lost portions of both his arms and legs in a 2012 roadside bomb explosion in Afghanistan, and who founded the Travis Mills Foundation to support veterans injured in post-9/11 conflicts, issued a statement in mid-August that the Bangor Daily News ran as a letter to the editor

“I know the situation in Afghanistan is bringing up a lot of emotions and feelings within our veteran and military communities,” Mills said. “My family and I, and our team at the foundation, have been watching closely right along with you. Remember that no matter what you are feeling, you are not alone.”

That is a powerful and important message from Mills. It’s a message the VA should be continually sending and following through on as well.

We’ve said it  many times: people should not hesitate to reach out for help when  experiencing mental health challenges. The same is true for veterans. And the VA should make sure veterans know where to get that help when they need it.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...