Over One Third of Calls To Veteran Suicide Hotline Are Left Unanswered



More than one-third of calls to a suicide hotline for troubled veterans are not being answered by front-line staffers because of poor work habits and other problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to the hotline’s former director.

Matthew Daly of Associated Press says some hotline workers handle fewer than five calls per day and leave before their shifts end, even as crisis calls have increased sharply in recent years, said Greg Hughes, the former director of the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line. Hughes said in an internal email that some crisis line staffers “spend very little time on the phone or engaged in assigned productive activity.” Coverage at the crisis line suffers “because we have staff who routinely request to leave early,” he said.

An average of 35 to 40 percent of crisis calls received in May rolled over to back-up centers where workers have less training to deal with veterans’ problems, Hughes said.

Hughes resigned from his position in June, weeks after sending the emails.

The House is expected to vote Monday on a bill that would require the VA to ensure all telephone calls, text messages and other communications received by the crisis line are answered in a timely manner by an appropriately qualified person.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Young, R-Iowa, said a veteran in his district told him he repeatedly received a busy signal when he called the crisis line this spring. The man later got help from a friend, but “this hotline let him down,” Young said. “A veteran in need cannot wait for help, and any incident where a veteran has trouble with the Veterans Crisis Line is simply unacceptable.”

Rather than hold employees accountable for doing their jobs, it looks like the plan is to hire more people and open another hub.

The VA said Monday it is increasing staff at the New York-based hotline and opening a new hub in Atlanta. The agency also pledged to continue efforts to improve training, as it responds to a report by an internal watchdog that said crisis calls are routinely allowed to go into voicemail and callers do not always receive immediate assistance.

David Shulkin, the VA’s undersecretary for health, called veterans’ suicide a “public health crisis and said suicide prevention is a top priority at VA. An estimated 20 veterans commit suicide every day; the vast majority were not connected to VA care in the last year of their lives.”

The crisis line dispatched emergency responders an average of 30 times a day last year and made 80,000 referrals to suicide prevention coordinators, Shulkin said.

“We are saving thousands of lives. But we will not rest as long as there are veterans who remain at risk,” Shulkin said in a statement.

Daly goes on to say, “The House bill follows a February report by the VA’s office of inspector general indicating that about 1 in 6 calls are redirected to backup centers when the crisis line is overloaded. Calls went to voicemail at some backup centers, including at least one center where staffers apparently were unaware there was a voicemail system, the report said.”

The crisis hotline received more than 500,000 calls last year, 50 times the number it received in 2007, the hotline’s first year of operation.

These problems should have been addressed already rather than waiting for the House to pass a bill. When people are considering suicide, then they need help immediately, not voicemail.  The people in charge need to be held accountable for regularly letting people leave their post early when suicidal people need help! They are not planning on making employees help more callers, they are just planning on getting more funding and hiring more people who will likely follow the same examples of the existing workers that leave early and don’t answer the phones much when they are there. This is also known as a temporary fix, and will not solve the underlying problem of people not helping people in need.

(Article by Jeremiah Jones)

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