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30 July 2010

When you call for help, who answers the phone?

I've looked at the phone number, and wondered just what's on the other end:

1-800-273-TALK.  Press 1 for veterans.

I have never called; I've only really ever been close enough to needing to call once (in fall of 2000, before there was such a hotline), and in that case I called in sick to work and went directly to the VA hospital.   When the triage nurse asked what I needed, I said I was feeling depressed and hopeless and life wasn't much fun any more.  I was in the mental health clinic within 15 minutes, enrolled and patient ID card in hand, waiting to see a doctor.

I've considered calling a few times over the past year or so-- not about suicide, but there have been those times when things seemed to be getting out of hand, and my normal healing/coping/dealing with it things weren't quite working.  But I usually have no trouble getting an appointment at the mental health clinic within a few days, so I just call the clinic directly and go see someone in person.  I've been there enough that I feel comfortable doing so, but I know not everyone has reached that comfort level.   Side note: If you feel you need to talk to someone as soon as possible, say so when you call the clinic or hospital.  Tell the person you're talking to that you're in urgent need of assistance.  It's not like having a broken leg, where they can see that you're bleeding out when you hobble in.

I still have always wondered about that number, about who would answer and what help they'd be able to provide.  I think that as a group, veterans often see the VA as a blank-- it's there, and we go there (or we don't), and it's just... there.  It's the VA.  Most times when we're there, something is going wrong in our lives.  It's always been my opinion, and my experience, that the VA is an agency full of people who really want to help, but it's not someplace veterans associate with happiness.

The New York Times posted an article today entitled "Taking Calls From Veterans On The Brink of Suicide".  There is also a set of additional photos that shows some of the people that answer those calls.  Now you, and I, have our answer to the question of who is on the other end of the line.


A couple of additional thoughts on the article:  First, I don't care that it's not a veteran answering the phone, and I don't see why veterans groups would complain.  If I'm in a situation where I need to call a suicide hotline, I just need help, period.  It may be that an outside voice is what a veteran needs to hear.

Second, I think sometimes we worry about what's going to happen when "help" arrives-- are we going to get jacked up by the cops, arrested, go to jail, be led away in restraints?  Maybe.  Try to look at the situation this way; if someone from the veterans suicide hotline calls the police, then the police are going to know you're a veteran when they arrive.  You won't get any special treatment-- an unstable person with a gun is an unstable person with a gun, and you'll likely be jacked up accordingly.  Cops are human though, many are also veterans, and they're on our side.  It might not seem like it when you're being led away in 'cuffs, but that might be the moment that your life turns around and starts getting better.

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