United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Behind the Scenes with a Veterans Suicide Hotline Responder
Several people sit at computers at their desks, speaking on headsets with a small American flag in the foreground
Responders at the National Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline help veterans in distress talk through their issues and lead them to the help they need. Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK.

“My very first phone call was one hour and 45 minutes and it was a gentleman who wanted to blow up the central [Veterans Affairs] office in Florida and take himself with it.”

Answering this call from her desk at the Canandaigua, NY call center for the National Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline, Beth Olson is much more than the “good listener” she describes herself to be. Down the phone line, her first caller started talking about his kids and the explosives strapped to his body.

“It’s a very strange situation to be on the other side of the phone when someone is in such turmoil. It’s not hectic, it’s calm. It’s almost like a dance; you have to keep up with them and make sure you make the right decisions.

“He’d only been back a few months from Iraq. What I was thinking was to find out whether he was in an apartment building or in a residential neighborhood. If I can keep him talking and keep him distracted from doing anything, like getting in the car and driving to the Regional Office.

“You just eke out the little bit of information that you can to find out: Is this person going to make it? And can we get there in time?”

Actually, Olson will never get to meet this caller, or any of the other dozens of Veterans she helps each night she works at the center. Giving up the face-to-face interaction was an adjustment from her 32-year nursing career, but Olson has learned to be grateful for the temporary bond over the phone.

“It’s very gratifying. Here you have the call, you have the crisis, you do the intervention, and you see results right away.”

Though she dreads the thought of losing somebody, it’s not the results Olson is thinking about as she answers every call in the same soft, even-toned voice:

“Thank you for calling the veterans crisis hotline,” Olson says as she copies down the phone number off of caller ID and starts making notes in the computerized and hard copy tally sheets.

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.

“They might tell me their serial number, their Social Security Number, their name and their age and their rank, and what branch of the military they are in. They usually start spewing information. Because people [in crisis] don’t talk usually and when they do, it all comes out at once — I’d like them to take control so they can communicate to meet their needs.”

As a responder, Olson is not without a supportive network of her own. There is always a co-worker or supervisor nearby to talk through a difficult call.

“You take a 15 minute break twice during the shift, if you remember to take it,” Olson qualifies. “You get some coffee or talk to somebody. I walk outside; it’s beautiful at night here because the moon is out and there’s crickets. I call my granddaughter who is eight; her father is in Iraq right now.”

Olson says thinking of her two sons on active duty in Iraq and her own father’s service during World War II means some of the calls hit close to home. She doesn’t shy away from that insight.

“It has given me a deeper understanding, nothing major, nothing secret, just a better understanding.

“I’ve lived through the Gulf War and marriage and parents who have died of old age and seen friends die of cancer and gone on weird vacations. I try to give something of a personal nature back to them to draw them out of themselves and bring them back to themselves.

“It’s not only what someone is saying; it’s the tone of their voice, it’s the pressure. If they have difficulty speaking they might have TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). You listen to their speech, their tone, their tone quality — if it’s angry, ambivalent, relaxed. You can pick up an awful lot of emotion [over the phone].) If they sound better at the end of the call than they did in the beginning, then I feel like they will be all right. They’ll be OK until the next time they call or until their next therapy.

Olson was able to get the police to her first caller in time. When the Veteran’s wife called the next day to say thank you, she was elated.

“I feel very strongly about taking care of these guys. How could you not care for someone who’s that hurt? I think they deserve to be taken care of as people who have taken care of us. We may not even be aware of what they’ve done.

“We’re not miracle makers, but we do provide hope and help.”

By Kristen Moses, VA Staff Writer

Related links:
  Suicide Prevention Hotline
  Department of Defense Mental Health

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