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Professional News
VA Hopes Hotline Will Reverse Rise in Veterans' Suicides
Psychiatric News
Volume 42 Number 17 page 8-8

Veterans in crisis can now call a toll-free suicide-prevention hotline for help at any time.

The hotline, at (800) 273-8255, is operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs and staffed 24 hours a day with mental health professionals who can refer callers to one of more than 120 VA crisis centers closest to them. Service in Spanish can be obtained at (888) 628-9454.

The hotline went into effect following several publicized cases in which young veterans of the Iraq war committed suicide after having difficulty accessing services at VA hospitals, according to their families.

The hotline operates nationwide and is based in a VA hospital in Canandaigua, N.Y. Nurses, social workers, or psychologists serve as staff, Gerald Cross, M.D., principal deputy assistant secretary for health at the VA, told Psychiatric News.

"They are able to pull up electronic health records, look at the veteran's history, make notes, and make referrals directly," said Cross. The staff members can link with suicide-prevention coordinators at VA facilities to coordinate the response to each caller.

The system began operating in July with VA staff working in cooperation with an existing Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) hotline. The system shifted to Canandaigua in August, but arrangements have been made to direct any momentary overload to the SAMHSA system, if needed.

In the first weeks of operation, the system was handling about 60 calls a day, including some from persons who were neither veterans nor their family members.

"Part of the training will include how to handle nonveterans or to enroll veterans not yet in the VA system," said Antoinette Zeiss, Ph.D., deputy chief consultant of the VA's office of mental health services, in an interview. "If they have not signed up with the VA before they call, we can arrange for them to be met and enrolled."

The VA has taken other steps recently to cut suicide rates among veterans. Every VA facility now has a suicide-prevention coordinator and held a suicide-prevention awareness day on March 1.

The VA deserves good marks for trying to get help to suicidal veterans, said Michael O'Rourke, assistant director for veterans' health policy at the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "I hope it works well as usage rises, but I'm still concerned about referrals in remote areas."

So are people like Pat Rowe Kerr, state veterans ombudsman for Missouri.

"People aren't going to drive four hours to Kansas City before they commit suicide," Kerr told Psychiatric News. "The VA needs to connect with all available community-based resources so they are geographically relevant."

However, the VA has made provision for helping callers from rural areas, said Janet Kemp R.N., Ph.D., National Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the Canandiagua VA Medical Center, in an e-mail interview.

"We can make arrangements through the nearest VA to have callers seen urgently at a community facility, a nearby VA community-based clinic, or at a Vet Center," she said. "If it is an emergency situation, we will and have contacted the local rescue organization to send immediate help and stay on the line until help arrives. We then work with the local VA to arrange for follow-up where it is easiest for the veteran. Our goal is to get the veteran immediate help if needed from the best possible source."

The VA's mental health Web site is<www.mentalhealth.va.gov>.

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