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Marc Magill, director of the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chicago, speaks at a June town hall meeting at the Adam Benjamin VA Outpatient Clinic in Crown Point. He is challenging people to give out the suicide prevention hotline number to 20 other people each.

Giles Bruce, Times file photo

An estimated 20 veterans kill themselves in America every day.

Mark Magill, director of the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chicago, wants to do his part to change that.

He recently came up with the 20 Challenge initiative to encourage people to share the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number — 800-273-8255 — with 20 people. He hopes the number can spread in a chain-letter/pay-it-forward fashion until nearly everyone has it stored in their phone.

"I want to challenge people to share that contact with 20 of their friends, relatives, share that contact with 20 other people over the next 20 days, with a short message as to why they're doing it and how to use it," he said.

Magill said suicide is "obviously not just a VA problem. It's an issue in Chicago, Illinois, Indiana. This is a community issue."

He noted the VA has found that of the 20 veterans who commit suicide every day, only 6 had been aware of VA services.

"Mental health issues can be treated if the services are made available and those services are used," he said. "Suicide can definitely be prevented.

"It might just be something as simple as you knowing a vet and seeing they need a little support: 'Do you want to talk? Is everything OK?' Oftentimes just that simple act will really, really make a difference, and the people will open up."

He said that if five people participate in the 20 Challenge and everyone else keeps the chain going, unbroken, it will reach the population of Chicago. If that happens with nine people, the number will be in the phones of everyone in America.

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Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.