Every morning at work, suicide prevention coordinator Evelyn Unkefer checks a nationwide hotline to see if any local veterans have called looking for help.
If so, veterans are steered her way and into her casework. She expects those calls to rise this year, and that may actually be good news.
A new initiative called “Option 7” aims to connect distressed veterans with mental health professionals quicker than the current system in an effort to potentially save lives. Currently, an automated message tells veterans to jot down 1-800-273-8255, hang up and call it. Soon they will be able to connect directly and some say that could make all the difference.
“The (automated) script is ‘dial this long number for the suicide hotline,’ which means the veteran needs to take the number while they’re in crisis, then hang up and call back,” said Paul Beiring, chief of staff of Mental Health at the Roseburg Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center. “‘Option 7’ will be able to change the script and say if you’re in crisis, hit 7 and we’ll send you right to a person you can talk to.”
The goal behind the initiative, according to its organizer Dan Davis, is to remove hurdles between mental health services and those in need of them.
“How do you remember, if you’re really emotionally distraught, a 1-800 number?” Davis said in a phone interview. “There’s no relateability. There’s no 1-800-SUICIDE.”
Davis, a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, began trying to make the hotline more accessible after a relative committed suicide.
“I always just felt that if she could have talked to someone, like the crisis line, that she would have made probably great contributions to society,” said Davis, who lives in Talent.
Then, as he phoned his local veterans affairs office, he heard the automated message refer people to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, an 11-digit phone number. He saw it as a roundabout way to find proper care.
“I think it’s really difficult even for somebody who has never been through that to understand,” he said. “It may be difficult to understand why you couldn’t just somehow find the 1-800 number… It took me 10 minutes to find it (for a friend). Sometimes 10 or 15 minutes is not fast enough.”
Davis created an online petition at www.thepetitionsite.com, which today has more than 56,000 signatures. Ultimately, he hopes the suicide hotline is simplified to a three-digit number to resemble the ubiquity of 9-1-1.
“9-1-1 everybody knows. They don’t have to look it up, they just know it,” he said.
A meeting with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., got things off the ground quicker. Davis secured a meeting with Merkley during a Habitat for Humanity event and pitched his idea, to which the senator agreed.
“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,” Merkley wrote in a statement last week.
Option 7 is already underway at the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City, just outside of Medford.
FINDING THOSE IN NEED
When the calls are referred to Unkefer, the work begins. With more than 35 years of experience, she is tasked with training staff, leading community outreach, and putting the right people together.
Sometimes that means sending suicidal veterans to mental health professionals or physicians. Sometimes it means getting them to the dentist, if tooth pain is distressing them so much.
“(I assist) them to assist veterans who are struggling,” she said. “That’s a very big part of my job. I monitor people who are at high-risk for suicide and provide case management services and facilitate them getting into the right treatment within the VA system.”
It’s an important job for a population that appears to be particularly susceptible to suicide and self-harm. In 2014, the Public Health Division of the Oregon Health Authority released a report calling suicide the leading cause of death for veterans 45 years old and younger.
The same report said Oregon veterans averaged 150 suicides per year from 2001 to 2012.
Unkefer was referred 70 calls from the suicide hotline in May, some of whom were the same person calling multiple times, she said.
She and other officials at the local VA said that while they can’t say for certain whether veterans are more prone to suicide than the general citizenry, it does not change their mission to help.
“I just know that we definitely have a problem,” Beiring said. “And it takes every resource for us to try and solve that issue.”
Dr. Erin Anderson-Fortier, the chief of psychology at the Roseburg VA, worked in a call center for years and said Option 7 could be one of those resources.
“Knowing we can ask someone to not have to disengage by pressing so many buttons, we know they are probably more likely to stay on the phone and receive the help they reached out for,” Anderson-Fortier said. “I think that’s really key to capturing the person in their moment of need.”