United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
VA’s Suicide Hotline: 10,000 Rescues and Counting
Woman at a computer talking on the phone
Someone to Listen — VHA Health Science Specialist and Suicide Lifeline Responder Melissa Rath talks with a caller. (VA staff photo)

The Department of Veterans Affairs National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is on track to record its 10,000th rescue — an achievement likely to occur some time around the Fourth of July. That’s 10,000 Veterans who would not be here today had they not called the VA Lifeline and talked to a trained responder — a responder who deemed it necessary to take immediate action to save the caller’s life.

“These are people who call us, but they’ve already taken pills, or they have a gun in their hands, or they’re standing on a bridge,” explained Jan Kemp, VA’s National Suicide Prevention Coordinator. “These are the calls where we can’t wait. We call emergency services right away.”

VA’s Lifeline crisis center, which opened in July 2007, is staffed 24/7 by 20 responders, social workers, health technician assistants and counselors who handle 15 phone lines and three chat lines. The center, located in Canandaigua, N.Y., has received about 260,000 calls during its three years in existence.

“A lot of our callers just want information regarding mental health and other services available to them at their local VA hospital,” Kemp explained. “But some of the calls are more urgent. The person is clearly distressed. We try to provide them with immediate assistance...we’ll send someone out to their house to do a wellness check-up.”

In some instances, however, it becomes clear that the caller needs more than a sympathetic ear, more than an appointment with a VA counselor or psychologist, more than a wellness check-up at his or her home. “For some of them, this one call is their last resort,” Kemp said.

That ‘last resort’ moment arrived recently for a young Veteran in the Oakland, Calif., area.

“One evening last week a 26-year-old Iraq Veteran called our Hotline from the Oakland train station,” said Melissa Rath, a Lifeline responder. “He was distraught; our hotline staff worked with him, but we weren’t able to decrease his panic. He told us he wanted to jump in front of a train. We could hear the trains over the phone. The Veteran hung up on us, stating he had no option but to die. We called the Oakland police, who in turn stopped the trains until they found him and took him to the local hospital.”

Just because they’re rescued doesn’t mean they won’t need our help again. We don’t want anybody falling through the cracks.
—Christopher Maginn, VA Lifeline responder

In another instance, a Lifeline responder found herself talking to a distraught Veteran who was behind the wheel of a truck, barreling down an interstate highway. He was on his way to deliver a load of cable from St. Louis, Mo., to De Coyne, Ill.

“He told me he was a truck driver who was on the road all the time, with no real address,” explained Lifeline Responder Julianne Mullane. “He said he was going to kill himself with a 20-gauge shotgun when he got back to his home base. I asked him why he wanted to die, and he said his father had died and he wanted to be with him. Leslie Brew, my partner, called the state police, and they agreed to intercept him. I let him know that the state police were going to pull him over for his own safety...I didn’t want that to be a surprise.”

The Veteran was safely pulled over by police and taken to a nearby hospital.

Lifeline responder Terry Rose remembers an active duty sailor who called the crisis center one evening from his base in Virginia.

“He was standing on the roof of a building and preparing to jump,” Rose said. “I was able to convince him to go back inside. I stayed on the phone with him while my partner, Roger Cheney, called the local police, who took the sailor to a local hospital for treatment.”

But Lifeline rescues don’t end when a distraught caller is taken to the hospital.

“We always follow up with the Veteran the following day,” said Christopher Maginn, a Lifeline responder and Army Reservist who recently returned from Afghanistan. “Just because they’re rescued doesn’t mean they won’t need our help again. So follow-through is important. We don’t want anybody falling through the cracks.”

The phone number for VA’s Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-TALK (8255). The chat line address is www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

By Tom Cramer, VA Staff Writer