VA Suicide Hotline Documentary: Call Center Featured In Oscar-Winning HBO Special Allowing Suicidal Veterans’ Calls To Go To Voice Mail

VA suicide hotline documentary

A Veterans Affairs (VA) call center in New York, featured on an award-winning HBO documentary, is allowing suicidal veterans’ phone calls to go to voice mail, USA Today is reporting.

The HBO documentary Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. The documentary focuses on a VA call center in Canandaigua, New York, where a team of dedicated crisis intervention specialist — some of them military veterans themselves, or veteran spouses — take calls for suicidal veterans. The documentary is meant to highlight the epidemic of suicide among the USA’s veterans.

“Since 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered about 900,000 calls… Crisis Hotline captures these extremely private moments, where the professionals, many of whom are themselves veterans or veterans’ spouses, can often interrupt the thoughts and plans of suicidal callers to steer them out of crisis. Hotline workers sometimes intervene successfully by seizing on the caller’s ambivalence and illuminating his or her reasons for living.”

As it turns out, not all calls coming in to the Canandaigua call center are being answered by trained professionals. Many aren’t even being answered at all, according to an Office of the Inspector Genera (OIG) report released late last week.

When the call center gets all the calls its systems can handle, veterans’ calls are re-routed to backup centers. And when there wasn’t enough help available at the backup centers, those suicidal veterans’ calls went to voice mail.

“We substantiated allegations that some calls routed to backup crisis centers were answered by voicemail, and callers did not always receive immediate assistance.”

In one backup call center, employees weren’t even aware that there was voicemail, meaning that some number of suicidal veterans called the hotline, got sent to voice mail, and never got a callback.

Veterans suicide

It’s not clear, as of this writing, how many suicidal veterans’ calls went to voice mail. However, the report did identify the number of calls going to backup call centers, and the number is both alarming and rising: 76,887 in 2014, up from 36,261 in 2013. 2015 and 2016 numbers have not been made available.

Still, the program has had some successes, depending on whom you ask. Since the veterans suicide hotline began in 2007, the crisis hotline has received over two million calls. Suicide interventionists were able to convince about 53,000 veterans not to take their lives.

As HBO notes, since 2001, more veterans have died by suicide than have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. One American veteran dies by suicide every 80 minutes, and veterans’ suicides account for 20 percent of all suicide deaths in the U.S. By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans have ever served in the military.

The current epidemic of veterans suicide stands in contrast to that of the Vietnam era, according to a January 2015 L.A. Times report. For reasons that aren’t clear, although suicide and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder were (and are) a problem for veterans returning from Vietnam, the rate of suicide among Vietnam vets in the first few years following the war were lower than they were in the population at large.

It’s not clear what the difference is, although the Times speculates that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars may be attracting service members who are more prone to risk-taking and impulsive behavior.

Iraq War veteran Leroy Farmer, in a Facebook post, explains how you can help veterans you know who may be at risk of suicide.

“22 vets commit suicide everyday. What can you do about it? Check on a vet everyday. Remind them that you are glad they are alive. Tell the vet one thing they do that makes the world better.”

[Image via Shutterstock/Magnetic Mcc]