It seems like an obvious distinction, but I'm willing to admit that I missed it entirely.

Those veterans who served in World War II made up 14 percent of Americans. So, when they came home, they came home to neighborhoods with people who shared their experience.

Contrast that situation with the current one: With less than 1 percent of Americans in the military, today's veterans come home to, well, the rest of us.

I'd like to thank Daniel Atwood, with the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, for pointing out that difference in a recent Houston Chronicle article.

What that means is that today's veterans don't have many people who understand their experience close by to talk to about that experience. Online social networking sites created especially for veterans, like "Community of Veterans," launched by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, are decreasing the isolation veterans may feel, connecting them to others with shared experiences, and creating a virtual community.

A few months ago, I wrote about how support from friends and family is critical to veteran suicide prevention. The U.S. government has worked hard to create a specialized veterans suicide prevention phone hotline and online chat through a partnership between the Veterans Administration, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

But creating virtual networks of veterans to support each other is novel, tapping into what we've learned about how technology can help people feel connected.

With social networking tools, you can connect at any time - so you're not alone with just your thoughts at 3 a.m. Social networking platforms also use collective energy to build on ideas, so when one person takes a risk and says, "I'm feeling depressed right now and don't know what to do," another person might say, "I feel the same way," and a third person can say, "I've felt that way and running/going to church/playing with my child really helped."

There is a fair amount of fear about how social media can work for suicide prevention. What if people reach out and no one responds, or worse, someone says that ending your life is the right thing to do?

So, it's with caution that we enter into using these new technologies. But, "Community of Veterans" and other locally-oriented sites that are in development offer an opportunity to see how social media can be used for good.

Copyright 2010 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

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