The new 988 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which launched this weekend, isn’t aimed specifically at veterans, but advocates are hopeful that the resource will provide an easier venue for veterans and military members facing mental health emergencies.
“The new shorter number directly addresses the need for ease of access and clarity in times of crisis, both for veterans and non veterans alike,” Dr. Tamara Campbell, acting Executive Director for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, said in a press event on Friday.
“[VA officials] are working to update materials and communications with the new number to spread the word to veterans, their supporters and our community partners.”
The new three-digit dialing code, mandated by Congress two years ago, is designed to give an alternative to the 911 emergency call line for individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts or other mental health issues.
The hotline went live nationwide on Saturday, although officials noted that some states still may need a few more weeks and months to get their systems aligned with the new service.
For Veterans Affairs officials, who have prioritized suicide prevention as a key health care goal in recent years, the new number does not replace any staffing or procedures related to their long-estalbished Veterans Crisis Line.
That service, which has been in operation for 15 years, receives about 2,000 calls per day on average, as well as nearly 400 text and chat exchanges.
And while the Veterans Crisis Line number — 1-800-273-8255 — will still work, officials anticipate that the new 988 hotline will be easier to remember, allowing more individuals to reach out for help when they need it.
As a result, Veterans Affairs officials are anticipating call volume to jump over the next year to as high as 1.7 million, nearly 2.5 times higher than last year’s total.
Dr. Matthew Miller, Executive Director for VA Suicide Prevention, said officials have been preparing for the switch for the last few years, and hired more than 460 new staffers to handle an increased volume of calls.
“We’re building our capacity as quickly as possible, yet also as validly and thoroughly as possible,” he said. “It’s one thing to answer the call quickly. But what happens after the call matters too.”
Miller said officials are preparing for a 60% increase in requests for consultations with veteran suicide prevention coordinators in the next two years and as much as a 150% increase in current levels by the third year of 988 operations.
“We’ve analyzed projected demand and supply around the nation with suicide prevention coordinators and dedicated resources to ensure that local facilities are supported in this,” he said. “We’re also addressing outpatient mental health staffing in bolstering and augmenting resources and support to local facilities.”
VA officials are emphasizing that despite all those coming, the core services and response behind their Veterans Crisis Line operations will not be altered.
“It’s the same VCL that veterans have come to trust, and that veterans and the American public expects the highest standards from,” he said. “This is a new option for reaching the same services.”
Veteran suicide fell to its 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.
But 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.
Veterans who call the new 988 hotline or the old 1-800-273-8255 number can select option 1 after connecting to reach a VA staffer. In addition, 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.