VA Suicide Hotline Saves Lives
September 10, 2007
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 10, 2007) - Help is now a phone call away for active-duty servicemembers and veterans about to harm themselves or who are contemplating suicide through the Department of Veterans Affairs' suicide-prevention hotline at toll-free 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
The hotline, which is manned around-the-clock and staffed by mental-health professionals, received its first call July 25 and has been credited with saving several lives a day in less than a month, according to Janet Kemp, Ph.D., R.N., VA national suicide prevention coordinator and associate director of education and training at the VA Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention.
"I feel good at the end of every day that people have been helped," she said.
The call center, located in Canandaigua, N.Y., receives an average of 130-140 calls a day. About half are from servicemembers who recently returned from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although Dr. Kemp said it was too early to see a pattern of why some recent veterans are driven to desperation, she did tell Congress in April that post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, trademarks of the war on terrorism, both carry high suicide risk rates.
While some callers are depressed and simply need to talk, Dr. Kemp said others have called with guns in their hands or after swallowing pills.
The social workers, mental-health nurses and counselors who man the phones ask callers a series of questions to assess their risk of self-injury, said Dr. Kemp. "Are they alone' Do they have a plan' Do they have the means to complete the plan right there with them'" They also discuss reasons to live. "Does the caller have someone with them' Does he or she have children'"
Mental-health professionals ask veterans who are about to harm themselves to remove the means, she said. They have the caller put the gun down and go into another room or flush pills down a toilet, for example.
Callers often choose to remain anonymous, said Dr. Kemp, but the VA has the ability to trace calls and dispatch emergency services to save lives in the most extreme cases.
She added the hotline is only the first step in helping veterans in distress, and that the VA works to ensure they receive follow-up care.
"While still on the phone, they develop a safety plan, so we know what they will do next: call a friend, go to a facility, all sorts of things that will keep them safe. We arrange for veterans to get help at their local VA facility. We talk to someone at the facility and make sure they contact the patient and that he or she is seen. People have been met at the door. It's been remarkable."
In addition to clinical training and certification, all of the hotline workers undergo an intensive crisis intervention training program.
"Several have told me that this is why they entered their profession - to help those in one-on-one crisis situations," said Dr. Kemp.
VA is the largest mental healthcare provider in the country. More than 9,000 mental-health professionals care for more than one million veterans each year. VA also plans to provide suicide-prevention coordinators at each of its 153 medical centers.