Written by William & Mary Law Student Krista Wallace

The VA operates a twenty-four hour crisis hotline for veterans, service members, and their loved ones in need.[1] Individuals may call a hotline phone number (1-800-273-8255, then press 1), send a text message to 838255, or chat online to receive confidential support any day of the week, 365 days a year.[2] Hotline operators are specifically trained to help veterans of all ages and circumstances, including those dealing with homelessness, unemployment, and drug and alcohol addiction.[3] Since its launch in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered over two million calls and dispatched emergency services 56,000 times.[4] It has also engaged in more than 267,000 online chats.[5]

A recent investigation by the VA’s Inspector General has revealed that this hotline may not be as effective as the numbers suggest. The report says that calls to the hotline have increased dramatically in recent years as veterans increasingly seek services following prolonged service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as Vietnam-era veterans are aging. Statistics show that about one-fifth of all suicides in the United States are committed by veterans, and the VA has identified suicide prevention as an area of concern.[6]

In 2014 alone, the hotline received more than 450,000 calls, a 40 percent increase over the previous year.[7] The Inspector General report reveals that the VA may have been unprepared for this sudden increase. About 1 in 6 calls in 2014 were redirected to backup centers when the line was overloaded, and numerous hotline calls made “complaints of long wait times for responders, being put ‘on hold’ or calls ‘not being put through’ to a responder,” the report reveals.[8]

Following the report, a VA spokesperson said, “We are improving our ability to be more available when our veterans need help the most.”[9] The VA Inspector General made several recommendations that will be implemented by September 30, 2016, including resolving all problems related to calls routed to backup centers, improving tracking of calls at the backup centers, establishing a quality assurance process for the Veterans Crisis Line and the backup centers, and ensuring that contracts with backup centers set expectations.[10] The department has also hired additional staff to work peak hours and is upgrading its telephone and technology systems.[11] Further, the VA has begun coordinating with community centers, partner groups, and local health care providers to ensure that veterans get appropriate care whenever a call comes in.[12] VA Secretary Robert McDonald said during a visit to a New York VA facility, “These improvements are already beginning to show that we are increasing our capacity to speak with the veterans who need us.”[13]

While the VA works to fix its imperfect system, veterans have other options. Organizations such as the National Veterans Foundation have crisis hotlines. To reach this hotline, call 888-777-4443, Monday through Friday between 9 am and 5 pm. Regional Veterans Service Organizations can also fill the gap while the VA works to improve its services. Veterans may also utilize the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1 (800) 273-8255. The hotline takes calls twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

[1] U.S. Dep’t of Veterans Affairs, Mental Health, http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/ (last updated Mar. 8, 2016).

[2] Id.

[3] Veterans Crisis Line Seeks to Help Those Struggling With Civilian Life, Unemployment, Post-Combat Stress, Huffington Post (Mar. 8, 2016, 12:06 PM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/08/veterans-crisis-line_n_1322423.html.

[4] Mental Health supra note 1.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Calls to veterans suicide hotline went to voicemail, report says, Military Times (Feb. 15, 2016, 3:03 PM), http://www.militarytimes.com/story/veterans/2016/02/15/calls-veterans-suicide-hotline-went-voice-mail-report-says/80409966/.

[11] Id.

[12] Mental Health supra note 1.

[13] Calls to veterans suicide hotline went to voicemail, report says, Military Times (Feb. 15, 2016, 3:03 PM), http://www.militarytimes.com/story/veterans/2016/02/15/calls-veterans-suicide-hotline-went-voice-mail-report-says/80409966/.