United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Suicide Hotline Staff: Compassion, Diversity and Dedication
women talking on the phone
Their diverse personal and professional backgrounds help responders connect to callers to the Veterans suicide prevention hotline (1-800-273-TALK).

Some of them are career nurses, some are 20-something social workers and some are Veterans themselves. As many as 30 responders are on hand, night and day, to answer the Veteran’s line at 1-800-273-TALK, the National Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline.

“They come with their own sets of experiences,” explains hotline founder Jan Kemp. “We have older people who have a lot of experience and have dealt with lots of different situations. We have some very young people who are right out of school and bring a whole different dimension to the hotline.”

New employees go through a week-long training and orientation process where sympathetic listening is honed into inexhaustible problem solving. Specialized training continues with monthly sessions focused on common questions like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and military terminology, as well as new counseling techniques to help the responders make that vital connection with their callers.

How long does it take to make a connection? “Sometimes it can be within a matter of seconds; if you use the right tone of voice,” says responder Julianne Mullane. “You have to bring your own personality to the call.”

Mullane understands the “be tough” and “no talking” culture she saw in her own father, a Vietnam Veteran. Caitlin Thompson, the hotline’s clinical care coordinator, didn’t have to grow up around a Veteran to be awed by their resilience.

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.

“The issue is not that I don’t have any experience in war — the issue is: I want to hear your story,” says Thompson. “You have a very individual experience and I want to learn about that. Reaching out can be so difficult, so I have such extraordinary respect for them.”

Regardless of the similarities on either end of the line, a compassionate network of advisors and therapists is ready to help every caller. This supportive environment extends to the responders as well.

“That the staff can feel very connected very easily with so many Veterans over the phone, even if it’s just a half hour,” says Thompson. “It’s a huge hazard of this work. The possibility is there that you may do everything that you can, and then we find out two weeks later that we lost somebody.”

“It can get a little overwhelming,” hotline supervisor Chris Smith says, “And it’s an appropriate response; people are going to get overwhelmed here. There are things that they need to share in order to deal through and manage what they’ve been through. You need to develop a therapeutic thick skin — to have those boundaries.”

Smith keeps a close eye on the responders on his night shift. Working from 11:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. is an adjustment in itself, but Smith says being stressed is a natural reaction to counseling others through a trauma.

Laughing and joking with coworkers during breaks or making time to exercise before going home is the kind of self-care that is encouraged on a mental and physical level. There is always a counselor, like Caitlin Thompson, on hand to talk to.

“We need to be able to notice the signs of burn out: a short temper, or if we’re not sleeping enough,” Smith explains. “We need to make sure we’re doing things to be good to ourselves.”

By Kristen Moses, VA Staff Writer

Related links:
  Suicide Prevention Hotline
  Department of Defense Mental Health

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