The Veterans Crisis Line is fielding a record number of cries for help, the Department of Veterans Affairs said, amid increased mental health concerns for post-9/11 veterans and service members.
The suicide hotline received more than 88,000 calls, texts and chats in March — the highest amount of monthly contacts it has ever had, according to new federal data obtained by NBC News.
Last month’s figure is nearly 28% higher than the busiest of any month in the first 10 months of the pandemic and 15% higher than August 2021, when calls surged after Kabul fell to the Taliban.
“We’re on the front end of a mental health tsunami,” said Scott Mann, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served three tours in Afghanistan.
The number of annual contacts increased 15% from about 775,000 in 2020 to nearly 896,000 in 2022, VA statistics show. There were about 74,000 total contacts in March 2022, nearly 67,000 in March 2021, and roughly 67,500 in March 2020, according to the data.
In a statement, the VA said there is "no particular data that can be pointed to in order to fully explain the increases" but that a combination of factors, including outreach campaigns and the launch of the crisis line’s new 988 phone number, most likely led more people to use the hotline.
But many veterans said they believe the surge is directly related to the troubled end of the 20-year conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, which they fought simultaneously and without a draft, meaning they were deployed more than any other generation and for longer.
“Every time you came out of it, you were going right back into it,” said Jonathan Cleck, a former Navy SEAL.
Now, Cleck says, after the longest war in American history, “everything we’ve been able to suppress is now just bubbling up to the surface.”
About 62% of combat veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan said they knew someone who was killed on duty, according to a Pew Research Center survey in 2011.
On top of that, a newly released survey conducted in part by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit advocacy group, found that nearly 49% of veterans are suffering from trauma as a result of the events of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Army veteran Matt Zeller, 41, a senior adviser with the nonprofit, said he and many others are tormented by extreme guilt over leaving behind tens of thousands of Afghan interpreters and allies — an invisible wound he called a moral injury.
“It’s an injury of the soul," said Zeller, who served nine months in Afghanistan in 2008. "And it’s the most insidious injury a veteran can suffer."
“There’s not a pill that they can give you. There’s not a group or individual therapy session you can go to. You can’t paint or sing your way out of this," Zeller added. "It fuels a person to take their life.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Afghanistan withdrawal, the Veterans Crisis Line saw texts for help surge 98% compared to the same time frame the year before, VA officials told reporters at the time.
Among those struggling was Mann, the retired Army lieutenant colonel, who served as a Green Beret for about two decades.
Mann, 54, said he struggled with suicidal ideations in 2013 when he retired from the military and began transitioning to civilian life after multiple deployments. Eight years later, he said, the end of the war in Afghanistan “took me right back to that place.”
“It got pretty dark for me,” Mann said. “The depression came on really hard because of the way the war ended, because of the way our leaders abandoned our allies, and how we were left holding the phone.”
The volume of monthly contacts to the Veterans Crisis Line decreased after August 2021 but spiked again around the first anniversary in the summer of 2022, new data shows. That timing also coincided with the launch of the crisis line's 988 phone number.
Then, in January, the hotline handled a record high of 85,500 contacts before reaching its peak of 88,000 contacts in March.
Lack of data on post-9/11 veteran suicides
More than 6,800 U.S. military members died during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense. But because the VA does not track suicides of former service members by generation, there is no way to know exactly how many post-9/11 veterans have taken their lives.
That makes it difficult to find effective solutions, said Cole Lyle, a former Marine and VA adviser who is now the executive director of Mission Roll Call, a nonprofit veterans advocacy group.
"I don't think you can tackle any problem until you have an idea of the scope and scale of the problem," Lyle said. "You have to have accurate data, and we do not."
In at least one widely cited estimate, a 2021 Brown University research paper said more than 30,000 service members and veterans of the post-9/11 wars have died by suicide — more than four times as many as have died in combat.
While the VA's latest annual suicide prevention report does not distinguish deaths by generation, it appears to show a mental health crisis among the youngest cohorts.
In 2020, the most recent year for which mortality data is available, suicide rates were highest among veterans ages 18 to 34. Suicide rates among that age group increased from 2019 to 2020, while they decreased for all other groups, the report said.
Without accurate federal data, many veterans have been keeping personal tallies, from word of mouth in their social circles. Since the end of the war, Mann said he’s lost three friends to suicide, including one fellow Green Beret and two combat-infantrymen.
Zeller said he knew five veterans who died by suicide directly after the last U.S. service member left Afghanistan in 2021. After that, Zeller did not have the heart to continue counting.
"I stopped tracking," he said. "I stopped asking the question."
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.