Local veteran gets VA to upgrade suicide prevention hotline

Pushed by a local veteran, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., says he has helped convince the Department of Veterans Affairs to create an easier phone system for veterans seeking suicide prevention help.

Merkley visited the VA’s Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City today to discuss the high rates of suicide among veterans and his role in helping push for the new direct connection for veterans.

Merkley was joined at today’s event by Dan Davis, of Talent, who has been working for years to change the Department of Veterans Affairs suicide hotline to something easier for veterans to use.

“None of our sons and daughters, friends and neighbors who survived combat overseas should be casualties when they come home,” Merkley said in a release. “We need to make sure that access to help for someone in crisis is as easy as it can be and today’s new suicide hotline by the VA will help connect veterans to care sooner.”

Under the current VA system, when military veterans seek suicide prevention assistance, they call the local VA phone number and the recording refers them to a 1-800 suicide hotline number. Davis, who had spent years trying to get an easier system for veterans to use, contacted Merkley’s office earlier this year about the issue.

Merkley’s office contacted the VA, which now says it has a new system in the works. Called Option 7, the system will give callers in the midst of a suicide crisis the ability to get help by pressing one number after dialing the VA. The new system will be in place at all VA facilities by the end of the summer, but in response to Davis’ advocacy on the issue, the White City facility will have the new system in place by this Friday.

“We need to do much more to help our veterans who are struggling with mental illness and depression, but my hope is that this small change will help save lives,” said Merkley. “We would never leave our wounded troops behind on the battlefield and we can’t leave them behind here at home.”

The Oregon Public Health department released a report in 2014 that showed that suicide is the leading cause of death among veterans under 45 years of age. The suicide rate is significantly higher among veterans than among non-veterans.