WASHINGTON — Dr. Janet Kemp, a longtime Veterans Affairs administrator who established the Veterans Crisis Line, passed away last week in upstate New York. She was 63.
Kemp’s 30-year career at the department featured numerous honors for her mental health work, including a 2009 award Service to America Medal for her work on the veterans suicide prevention hotline.
Since its launch ten years ago, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered nearly 3 million calls and initiated emergency intervention in almost 75,000 cases. It has become the keystone of the department’s suicide prevention efforts, employing more than 500 specialists at a pair of sites in New York and Georgia.
Kemp oversaw much of that expansion, growing the program from small offices at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center.
In 2011, during a military suicide conference in Washington, D.C., Kemp admitted she did not initially think the hotline would be such a critical tool.
“I said, “I don’t think veterans will call ... We have (other) crisis lines in the country. Why don’t we use those?’” she recounted. “And I have never been so wrong about anything in my entire life.
“Veterans do call. All genders, all ages, people with all sorts of needs. If the services are there and help is there, people are reaching out to get them. And so our task has become being available. And it’s working in all sorts of ways and shapes that we didn’t imagine.”
Kemp worked as VA’s National Mental Health Program Director for Suicide Prevention from 2007 until 2014 and then as Chief of Education for the VA Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention until her retirement in 2016.
She was the lead author on numerous reports on mental health and suicide prevention at the department. Kemp earned nursing degrees from SUNY Plattsburgh and University of Colorado-Denver before starting her work with VA in 1986, and later held an adjunct appointment at the University of Rochester in New York.
Family members said Kemp died after a lengthy illness. She is survived by her spouse, Rhonda, and sister, Pamela. Funeral services were held on Saturday.
To contact the Veteran Crisis Line, callers can dial 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.