By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new nationwide strategy to prevent suicides, especially among U.S. military veterans and younger Americans, is tapping into Facebook, mobile apps and other technologies as part of a community-driven push to report concerns before someone takes his own life.
The effort, announced on Monday, is the first new plan in more than a decade to address what officials say is a growing public health issue. It aims to curb deaths over 10 years, especially among the nation's military veterans.
"It takes the entire community to prevent suicides. It's not just one individual," said U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin. "We all can play a role."
The revised plan promotes a recently developed Facebook Inc service that allows users to report suicidal comments they see online from friends. The website will then send the potential victim an email urging him to call the hotline as well as chat confidentially online with a counselor.
"All too often, people in crisis do not know how - or who - to ask for help," Facebook Global Vice President for Public Policy Marne Levine said in a statement. "We have a unique opportunity to provide the right resources to our users in distress, when and where they need them most."
Other new technologies, such as certain mobile computer applications, or "apps," also help connect people with counseling resources and other help.
The plan, unveiled at an event in Washington by Benjamin, along with U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Army Secretary John McHugh, aims to encourage people to take specific steps to get help for themselves or their loved ones. It also seeks to erase any stigma, especially among U.S. military veterans.
The initiative includes $55.6 million in grant funding for suicide prevention programs.
Suicide is a growing concern and results in the deaths of more than twice as many people on average as homicide, officials said.
On average, about 100 Americans die each day from suicide, officials said. More that 8 million U.S. adults seriously thought about suicide in the last year, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Of particular concern are the nation's 23 million veterans.
President Barack Obama has made caring for those who have served in the military a top concern, including tackling mental illness, but it has been a struggle.
Despite his administration's efforts to expand prevention measures for veterans, including beefing up a special hotline, the number of suicides appears to be growing. There were 17,754 suicide attempts among veterans last year - about 48 a day - up from 10,888 in 2009, data from the Department of Veterans Affairs showed.
"Suicide is one of the most challenging issues we face," McHugh said in a statement. "In the Army, suicide prevention requires soldiers to look out for fellow soldiers. We must foster an environment that encourages people in need to seek help and be supported."
Last week, Obama called on federal agencies to improve meeting the demands for mental health and substance abuse treatment for veterans, including ordering an additional 100 counselors to staff the Veterans Affairs' 200-person crisis hotline.
Some advocates, however, expressed concern that despite the new tools and outreach, connecting with at-risk veterans -- especially those who have felt slighted by their efforts to get help in the past -- will be a challenge.
Kristina Kaufmann, executive director of the Code of Support Foundation, said offering new initiatives without making it clear to service members that the military is sincerely trying to improve care is still an issue.
"There are some people who for different reasons will never use anything connected to the VA, so that's why I think it's important to provide different options," said Kaufmann, whose group advocates for better ties between civilians and military life.
The last major U.S. plan tackling suicide was in 2001.
Since then, there has been more research and data on suicide and who is most at risk, as well as the best strategies to reach those people, Surgeon General Benjamin said.
"We now know what we didn't know 15 years ago - or we didn't understand - which is that suicide is preventable. So prevention is where we're focusing now," she said.
"We didn't really talk about suicide much," Benjamin said. "We didn't bring up the idea of suicide. We were afraid it might give someone a new idea. Now we know that it's important to ask 'Have you have suicidal thoughts?' or 'Are you thinking about suicide?' and say 'If you are, there are ways to get help.'"
Overall, any effort to encourage more people to talk about how they are feeling would help, especially if trained experts can quickly reach those at risk, said Cheryl Sharp, who tried to commit suicide nine times between the ages of 13 and 24.
"It's still taboo," said Sharp, now 55 and a special adviser on trauma-informed services at the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, which represents state and local mental health organizations.
She added that the new emphasis on technology could help people, especially those less likely to reach out in person and more comfortable posting their troubles online.
"If you're putting that out on Facebook, you're saying 'I am desperate, and I need help,' but you may not be able to make the phone call," she said. "There is some way to make some kind of connection, and it's an online connection. I think it's good."
(Editing by Doina Chiacu and Dan Grebler)