VA Sending Suicide Hotline Callers to Unresponsive Voicemail

Cropped SingleCare logo By | May 18, 2016

Amid mounting allegations of institutional failure, the VA has reached a troubling new low — it appears that the department’s failures have again led directly to the deaths of those it was founded to protect.

When it becomes known that the number of calls to a veterans’ suicide prevention hotline has “increased dramatically” year over year, you might expect the people maintaining it to keep its best counselors ready and waiting on the other end of the line.

But that’s hasn’t been the case at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Callers to the dedicated VA Veteran’s Crisis Hotline have reported long hold times, dropped calls, and worst of all, transfers to a voicemail service that operators didn’t even know existed.

The VA, which has been under increasing scrutiny due to charges of corruption and downright incompetence, has been scrambling to respond after reports surfaced of the unattended hotline surfaced. With a reported 22 veterans committing suicide each day, the volume of calls, the VA was dealing with a staggering number of calls – 450,000 in 2014.

But instead of handling this problem of capacity internally, calls that the VA couldn’t handle were forwarded to outside contractors, which were often held to no operational standards, according to Military Times. Employees of these call centers were not properly trained to respond to the needs of the troubled veterans – the bombshell report on the service, conducted by the VA Inspector General, indicates that in many cases, the calls went straight to voicemail without return.

Veterans Picking up the Slack

War veteran with problems
[Thinkstock /KatarzynaBialasiewicz]
Special Forces veteran Johnny Primo knows that the psychological plight of former service people is a matter of life and death. Speaking to CBS News, Primo recounted his experience reading a suicide note written by a fellow vet, an experience that galvanized his own efforts to create a lifeline for his brothers-in-arms.

“I was 45 minutes too late from him taking his own life,” he said. “Immediately it was a gut-wrenching feeling, knowing that there was a chance that if he had my phone number he wouldn’t have killed himself.”     

Spurred by the incident, Primo and another veteran, Casey Gray, immediately created an Instagram account filled with suicide prevention messages and appeals to vets contemplating suicide to reach out and get help, even if that meant contacting them directly.

“Within the first three hours we saved one person,” said Primo. “Within the first 24 hours we saved five people, people who were on the verge of suicide.” Since then, the page has morphed into a larger movement, 22 Too Many, a nonprofit organization largely run by veterans to create a supportive community for those that need help.  

Getting Help

Soldier reunited with his daughter
While the VA has taken steps to address the problems with its hotline, assigning former head of the VA’s Health Resource Center and retired Air Force Major Matthew Eitutis to fix the system, there is little indication that the current status quo will change soon. Unfortunately, Eitutis’ record with agency phone systems is checkered at best: according to the USA Today, similar hotlines under his authority have had dropped call rates as high as one in every five.

Clearly, there’s a major need to provide support for our veterans’ mental health. While having a voice at the other end of an emergency phone line can be a lifesaver, that should be considered as a worst-case treatment scenario. Veterans need to have access to high quality mental healthcare to help to prevent the downward spiral that leads to crisis-level depression and suicidal thoughts.     

While the VA pulls itself together, other healthcare options are essential. For SingleCare members, mental healthcare services are available at a savings rate of up to 48%, no matter their level of insurance coverage. SingleCare also offers a telehealth service where members can speak to a psychologist or psychiatrist anywhere, anytime online or from a phone. With a wide network of counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists to choose from, the service offers both affordability and plenty of choice for those in need.

While mental health is important for everyone, veterans are a particularly important and affected group — making sure they receive top-quality care should be a top priority.

[Main image credit: Thinkstock / david stuart]