Janet Kemp established the national Veterans Suicide Prevention hotline

Little more than a decade ago, veterans in crisis had nowhere to call other than hotlines used by the general public. Thanks to a Canandaigua woman, her vision and dedication to veterans, that changed in 2007 with the opening of the Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention and its national suicide prevention hotline.

At the forefront was Janet Kemp, a registered nurse with a Ph.D. whose work established the center and hotline that has taken over 3 million calls since it went live — sparking emergency dispatch to veterans in crisis tens of thousands of times.

“It is hard to measure. You can’t ask millions of people, ‘Did someone save your life?’” But she did save millions of lives,” said Wilfred Pigeon, director of the Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center.

Janet Elizabeth Kemp, who retired last year as the center’s associate director and chief of education, died Aug. 7. She was 63.

With a focus on research and education, Ms. Kemp learned from — and influenced — hundreds of people in the field of suicide prevention.

“She filled an enormous role in her tenure,” said Pigeon.

A Jefferson County native, Ms. Kemp earned a bachelor of science in nursing from SUNY Plattsburgh in 1976. She began her career at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, moving from there to Denver where she continued working as an RN and earned a master of science in nursing in 1979 from University of Colorado-Denver. Years later, she returned to University of Colorado-Denver, earning a doctorate of philosophy, nursing degree in 2004 for her dissertation "Women Deployed: Pattern Profiles of Women Who Served During the Persian Gulf War."

Her work for the VA began in the late 1980s and eventually led to her research in suicide prevention.

Out of nothing, she created the Center of Excellence and it got so big that the crisis line became its own program, said Pigeon, who is also associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, where he directs the Sleep and Neurophysiology Research Lab. Pigeon recalled when Ms. Kemp left to do a stint in Washington, D.C., when the Center she created worked for her and operated under her wing. He recalled when she received the Service to America Medal naming her 2009 Federal Employee of the Year for establishing the national suicide prevention hotline.

Ms. Kemp received many accolades throughout her career. But this recognition, awarded to just one person in the entire United States government — ”someone has to stand out pretty far to rise to that level,” Pigeon said.

Ms. Kemp was admired for her leadership as well as her compassion. In the field of suicide prevention “you can’t help but take on a little of the suffering,” Pigeon said.

“Jan was one of those folks who took that on. That really impacted Jan. She was the kind of person who felt those losses,” he said.

The Veterans Crisis Line grew to employ 300 in Canandaigua and another 300 in Atlanta. In keeping with her vision, Ms. Kemp also initiated the placement of suicide prevention coordinators at each VA across the nation. She found money in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for hiring and training coordinators, along with resources to continue supporting them.

Pigeon described an outpouring of condolences after Ms. Kemp died Aug. 7. “She was a wonderful person,” he said, noting she was a good listener and cared deeply about people. Among the shared memories are dinners Ms. Kemp hosted at her Canandaigua home for annual meetings of VA leaders from across the country. The VA didn’t pay for food and she would have the dinner catered, he said.

“She was a master of connecting with people and connecting people to each other,” Pigeon said.

Janet Kemp is survived by family including her spouse of many years, Rhonda Kreft; her sister, Pamela Kemp Shepherd of Potsdam; nephew, Zachary Shepherd of San Francisco; and niece, Elizabeth Shepherd of Boston. Calling hours and a service were held August 12 with arrangements by Bezanilla-McGraw Funeral Home in Carthage. Memorial donations may be made to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors at taps.org. Condolences may be made at http://www.bezanillafh.com/


Need help?

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-TALK (8255). Veterans press 1 to reach a responder. Or Text 838255 — A VCL responder will text back. Chat online at https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/