Veterans Affairs officials expect calls to the Veterans Crisis Line to increase by as much as 150% after a new three-digit dialing code for suicide prevention services starts operating this July.
That would mean hundreds of thousands more veterans getting emergency help during mental health crises, provided department officials can keep up with the demand.
On Wednesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said department leaders have been increasing staff and prepping for increased caseloads in anticipation of the new 988 dialing code. Individuals in some areas can already use the service, but it is set to go into effect nationwide by July 16.
Similar to the 911 dialing code, which puts callers in direct contact with local emergency response officials, the 988 code will allow individuals to instantly connect with the National Suicide Prevention Line.
Veterans who call will be transferred to VA’s Veterans Crisis Line to speak with counselors who have military-specific experience and access to other veteran support resources. Currently, about one-third of all calls to the national crisis line are transferred to the VA call center.
The new three-digit code has been in the works for the last two years. McDonough told members of the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that his department expects call volume to jump over the next year from about 700,000 to as high as 1.7 million, as individuals can more easily access the service.
“We began hiring up for this effort last year,” he said. “We need to increase our full-time workforce by about 460 people … but we have the money and the ability and the authority to get that done.”
The new number won’t stop individuals from accessing help if they dial the direct number for the National Suicide Prevention Line (800-273-8255) or if they visit the Veterans Crisis Line’s online chat and text options.
But federal officials are hopeful the 988 number will be easier to remember and provide an even faster response for individuals in need of mental health intervention.
Veteran suicides fell to their lowest level in 12 years in 2019, down more than one-death-a-day from the previous year’s levels, according to data released by VA officials last fall.
That translated into about 17 veterans-a-day who die as a result of suicide. When factoring in active-duty military, reservists and other associated groups, the total is closer to 20-a-day.
Even with the decrease, the rate of suicides among veterans remains almost double that of the rest of the American public, accounting for more than 32,000 deaths from 2015 to 2019.
If the 988 number is not yet working in a region, veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
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