2009 Federal Employee of the Year

Janet Kemp

Established a national suicide prevention hotline for veterans, which has resulted in more than 5,000 immediate rescues.

What would you do if you were having an online video chat with your son and you saw him put a gun to his head and threaten to commit suicide?

The mother of an active duty soldier called 1-800-273-TALK.

It saved her son’s life.

Within minutes of her call, emergency personnel were on the scene, and the soldier’s parents were able to watch the rescue happen live on their computer.

1-800-273-TALK is the number for the National Veteran Suicide Prevention Hotline. Three years ago, a hotline for veterans and active military personnel didn’t exist. Thanks in large part to Dr. Janet Kemp of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Office of Mental Health Services, this life-saving resource is now available to active duty military personnel and family members of these individuals, and it has “rescued” more than 3,000 people.

“The VA hotline is so special,” said Dr. Kemp. “We have this strong network of people across the country to serve those who serve in our military.”

Janet Kemp began her career with the VA more than two decades ago. She worked for years as a nurse, while going to school to get her Ph.D. She eventually began to research suicide prevention, becoming an expert on the topic. Kemp also built strong ties to the suicide prevention community, and, in 2005, she was recruited by Dr. Ira Katz, deputy chief for Patient Care Services at the VA, to build the hotline.

“She was the only person in VA who could pull off creating this hotline,” said Dr. Katz.

Dr. Kemp moved from her home in Colorado to Canandaigua, N.Y., to build the hotline. She reached out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and asked if she could build off of their pre-existing hotline to create one specifically for military personnel and their families. These partnerships allowed the VA’s hotline to be integrated into a network of 120 call centers and worked through the most recognized suicide crisis number: 1-800-273-TALK. Veterans and military personnel are asked to “Press #1” for specialized care.

Catherine Dischner, director of Clinical Support at VA, says, “A unique aspect of this hotline is that a caller’s records, if enrolled in the VHA Health Care Systems, can be accessed by VA staff regardless of the caller’s location.” This structure allows immediate access to critical medical information, and ensures that new information is available to the mental health professionals at the treating facility. This innovation means quicker assistance and potentially the difference between life and death for some callers.

Dr. Kemp recognized the need to raise awareness about the hotline and change attitudes about reaching out for help, so she set up a public education unit within her team. Among its activities, this group has launched a public service announcement campaign featuring Academy Award-nominated actor Gary Sinise.

Today, her program includes more than 400 employees working full-time on suicide prevention.

Since the hotline went live on July 25, 2007, until April 2009, more than 120,000 calls have come to the “press #1” function, and approximately 3,060 rescues have occurred. Rescues are defined as callers who have been removed from a suicidal situation after they have begun to act on it.

“Making the hotline a reality took a leap of faith by many people,” Kemp says. “We had many barriers to overcome, but we are succeeding because of the strong partners we have across the country.”

Dr. Vince Kane with the Office of Mental Health Services at the VA commented that “the hotline represents who Janet is. Its mission and goal capture the essence of the commitments she made when she became a nurse. She sees our veterans as a part of her own family, ensuring that they are cared for and do not allow an illness to compromise who they are and ultimately their life.”

Catherine Dischner adds, “Janet is 100 percent committed. She is never off. She literally may spend only one or two nights in her own bed.”

On November 5, 2007, the president signed the Joshua Omvig Veteran Suicide Prevention Act, named for a young man who committed suicide weeks after returning from Iraq, which authorized additional resources for Dr. Kemp’s work. When asked why she works so hard, her answer is simple: “to make a difference for another Joshua.”