Talking about veteran suicide isn’t easy, but it’s something the experts at the Department of Veterans Affairs do every day. Our prevention work is constant, and our commitment to veterans extends to all 24 hours of each day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Last year, our Veterans Crisis Line dispatched emergency responders to individuals in need about 30 times every day and made 80,000 referrals to suicide prevention coordinators at VA medical centers.
We know we are saving thousands of lives, but we’re certainly not celebrating. We know too many veterans are still struggling and that we have more work to do. Even one life lost is one too many, and it grieves us, especially our dedicated employees, many of whom are veterans who spend late nights and holidays away from their families, that this problem has endured.
However, recent media reports claiming calls to the Veterans Crisis Line are rolling over or going unanswered are simply untrue.
What is true is that the VA, like other organizations that operate crisis lines, does rely on back-up centers. But these aren’t your average call center. They’re operated by trained responders and are used only when the VA line is overwhelmed by calls.
When back up is needed, the VA utilizes the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. This crisis line network was established by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Mental Health Association of New York City and is independently evaluated by a federally funded investigation team.
What’s also true is that we are currently strengthening the Veterans Crisis Line by doubling its size, opening a new hub in Atlanta, and using best-in-class business practices to improve capacity and our effectiveness as a life-saving resource. This will allow us to soon answer all calls to the crisis line with trained VA responders.
Yet we recognize more is needed.
As a result, we’re expanding our suicide prevention efforts and providing greater access to services. In addition, we are working to ensure same-day access at every one of our 168 medical centers for those with urgent mental health needs. We will reach this goal by the end of this year.
We are also continuing to hire more VA mental health professionals and are aggressively utilizing predictive analytics and telecommunications to connect caregivers with veterans in areas where services are limited. We are actively exploring more effective treatments and searching for new approaches using innovative, technological solutions.
Despite these improvements and our ability to deploy the assets of the country’s largest integrated medical and behavioral health care system, the VA cannot fully address this issue alone.
Of the 20 veterans who died each day by suicide in 2014, 14 had not been connected to the VA for care in over a year. So, we are enhancing our partnerships with community-based providers to broaden the network of mental health professionals who can reach veterans and are researching new solutions.
A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed suicide is increasing across all demographics and generations of Americans. This is sobering, but we believe our partnerships, research and new technologies will benefit not just veterans but also all Americans. As a nation, we must support each other and direct friends, family members, veterans and colleagues to the right resources where hundreds of caring professionals are standing by to help.
What we fear most is that veterans or their families who read hastily reported news stories will become afraid to speak up because they believe their calls will go unanswered. That would yield devastating results.
To our employees who work day in and day out with veterans in crisis, we thank you for your service.
To our veterans who feel they are at the brink with no place to turn, please know that we are here for you and will always be there to answer your call.
If you are a veteran or the loved one of a veteran experiencing a crisis, the VA provides universal access to 24/7 emergency care through our Emergency Departments and the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line. Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, or text 838255, or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net.
Dr. David J. Shulkin is the under secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.