United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Giving Access to Care for Those Veterans Who Need It Now: The Suicide Prevention Hotline
Woman sitting at PC consults with colleagues.
Suicide Prevention responder Melissa Schwab (at keyboard) relies on health technicians to provide support while engaging a distressed Veteran. Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK.

Since its launch 3 years ago, the National Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-TALK) has been a lifeline for Veterans in emotional crisis across the nation and the world. It began with 4 phone lines but today has more than 19 lines.

“The minute we opened it up people started calling and they haven’t stopped yet,” said Jan Kemp, the VA National Mental Health Program Director for Suicide Prevention. Kemp has spearheaded the creation and expansion of suicide prevention hotline. They have answered more than 300,000 calls since then; in July, the number of rescued Veterans passed 10,000.

Its expansion into the online realm as well as specific focus for homeless vets and active duty OEF/OIF soldiers has been both a deliberate and organic response to the reality of what triggers suicidal thoughts and the best methods to reach those in need.

“A lot of people that do call here are having suicidal thoughts,” said Larry Shaner, a health technician with the hotline and 23 year VA employee. “But they’re calling us because they really don’t want to die.”

Working the phone lines is a team of a responder and health technician. The responder, a trained mental health professional, takes the call and speaks with the veteran and tries to understand the situation. The health technician takes the information the veteran provides to the responder and tries to pinpoint a location. Once a location is established, emergency services in that area can be contacted either for immediate attention in response to a suicide attempt or to provide follow-up care.

If you or a Veteran you know needs assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime, any day at
1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go online to VeteransChat.

And while there’s a standard procedure to providing crisis care, no phone call is typical. For responder Bruce Long, the length of a conversation is dictated by the Veteran and taking the time to listen to the needs of the vet — both the physical and mental.

“To see what they go through and how much it takes for them to pick up the phone in the first place,” said Long. “It’s really pretty incredible to be able to help somebody at that place.”

The hotline recognized that an online chat is another way to reach veterans in crisis, and in July 2009 launched Veterans Chat. Veterans Chat allows veterans to safely connect with mental health specialists directly via computers. It’s a one-on-one conversation similar to instant messaging programs such as AOL or Gmail Chat. A team of staff designed Veterans Chat when Kemp approached them about extending their care and helping people on the web.

“We looked at all the different social media things that were in high use currently,” said Joann Lewis , a member of the Chat development team.

The hotline has also focused on reaching out to homeless vets. Because homelessness is often a trigger to suicidal thoughts, the hotline combats these circumstances by connecting homeless vets with shelters and programs at their local VA and outreach to resources in communities.

But sometimes a role develops spontaneously and the hotline must meet an unexpected need.

Kevin Elphick, a hotline responder, was the first to handle a rescue of an active duty soldier in Iraq. It began with the mother of the soldier and she didn’t know who else to call, so she called the hotline. And while the hotline targets veterans, in a crisis there’s no question about helping a caller in need.

“Once we started to realize that we were getting calls from the active duty population, we began to conduct training for staff in terms of military culture, how to specifically respond to them and to refine our resources beyond the veteran population.” said Elphick. “So the hotline really tends to be a resource that is continually growing and evolving and meeting the needs that we see coming to us.”

In that first situation, the Red Cross was an invaluable resource in locating and rescuing the soldier in Iraq. Now the hotline has a direct line to Iraq through the Chaplain’s Line and is in the process of setting up a similar line in Afghanistan.

No matter what, the resources for the veterans will continue to expand and grow to meet the need and the mission of service.

“The essence of the system truly is providing a way for people to get access to the care — whether they need it right now or whether they need it tomorrow or next week,” said Kemp. “This is an alternative for them.”

For her work in creating the suicide prevention hotline, Kemp was the recipient of the 2009 Federal Employee of the Year.

By Hillary Green, VA Staff Writer

Related links:
  Suicide Prevention Hotline
  Department of Defense Mental Health
  2009 Federal Employee of the Year