The number of calls from veterans and their family members to the Veterans Affairs suicide prevention hotline spiked over the New Year’s holiday, news that department officials are saying shows increase awareness and accessibility of the emergency service.
Over the two-day weekend, the Veterans Crisis Line fielded 3,869 calls, up almost 19% from typical weekend levels so far this fiscal year, according to data released by department officials.
Compared to the New Year’s Eve 2021 and New Year’s Day 2022, the call volume each day was up almost 30%. Chat interactions were up 25% from a year ago, and text conversations with crisis line operators were up 75% from the previous New Year’s holiday.
In a statement, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the increased usage is an encouraging sign that more veterans know of and are open to contacting the mental health counselors.
“We want all veterans to know that caring, qualified responders are always here for them and ready to help ― even in times of particularly high stress and high demand like the holiday season,” he said. “You can reach the Veterans Crisis Line at any time by calling 988, then press 1. Don’t wait, reach out.”
Officials credited the three-digit 988 dialing option as a major factor in increased usage of the crisis line in recent months.
Under the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020, federal officials established the 988 number for mental health crisis assistance. The number went into effect on July 16, 2022.
Veterans who dial the number can access the Veterans Crisis Line — run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, with staff who can lend assistance on a host of VA benefits issues — by pressing 1 after dialing.
VA leaders said the crisis line has handled more than 200,000 calls since the start of the fiscal year in October 2022.
Department leaders said the average wait time on the hotline is less than 10 seconds. During the holiday weekend, 99.2% of calls were answered within two minutes and the remaining fraction were contacted after call problems were resolved.
The debut of the 988 hotline was accompanied by public efforts by VA officials encouraging veterans to seek help. That includes the “Don’t Wait, Reach Out” campaign with the Ad Council which focuses on contacting VA before personal challenges reach a crisis point.
The number of veterans suicides in America fell to just under 17 a day in 2020, the latest year for which data is available. Officials have noted that its the lowest level since 2006 but also equates to about 6,000 preventable veteran deaths annually.
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line through 988 or at 1-800-273-8255. Callers should 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.