End the VA suicide hotline’s busy signal

The Denver Post

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Washington, DC, September 27, 2016 | By The Denver Post Editorial Board | comments

Fumbling the phone call of a suicidal veteran reaching out to a hotline for help is an unthinkable failure on the long list of dangerous mistakes perpetrated by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ensuring that veterans teetering on the brink are not met with a busy signal or a voice message when they call a phone number established solely to keep them from falling seems like a fairly basic responsibility.

But it’s one that the VA seems incapable of accomplishing.

The Associated Press revealed on Monday that one in three calls to the VA suicide prevention hotline are being directed to backup crisis centers where employees have less training and sometimes rely on a voicemail system rather than providing immediate responses.

A report in February made shock waves when it pegged that number at closer to one in six. Now we learn that the situation is actually worse than originally disclosed.

Congressman Mike Coffman, a Republican from Aurora and a combat veteran, pointedly said the result of the struggling system is that an average of 20 veterans who served their country take their life everyday. Some of those veterans survived war, returned home, and were unable to find the help they needed within the VA — a federal agency that exists solely to serve them.

The sad thing is that the VA says when calls do get through to the hotline it is working. The hotline’s website credits the crisis call center for saving thousands of lives a year and dispatching emergency responders dozens of times a day. The volume of calls is staggering — nearly half a million a year.

One veterans’ advocate said the hotline has worked for him every time he’s helped a veteran make the call, and he knows it personally has saved two lives. It’s an anecdote that inspires hope that things aren’t as bad as they’ve been reported.

Coffman and Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., who both serve on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, expressed great frustration that despite years of working on this very issue little has changed.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act of 2015 requires a third-party analysis of the suicide prevention system within the VA, but that report isn’t due until 2018.

Lamborn said an interim report will come out on Friday. Let’s hope that report will include concrete suggestions for how to improve not only the hotline but the entire suicide prevention system.

A bill that passed the House unanimously on Monday, H.R. 5392, demands that the secretary of the VA develop a plan to ensure that “each telephone call, text message, and other communications received by the Veterans Crisis Line, including at backup call centers, is answered in a timely manner by a person, consistent with the guidance established by the American Association of Suicidology.”

Coffman and Lamborn said the bill is likely to pass the Senate with bipartisan support too.

Let’s hope it becomes law and stops the busy signal.

The statistics on veteran suicides show interventions work. Only six of the roughly 20 suicides that happen every day are veterans who have accessed some form of mental health care.

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