988 Nationwide Suicide Hotline Crashes, VA Offering Alternatives

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Personnel Specialist 2nd Class Kylaya Mannings (right) and Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Sebastian Castano raise a banner for Suicide Awareness Month at Mayport Memorial Park, Sept. 10, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alana Langdon)

The Department of Veterans Affairs skirted a widespread outage of the national 988 suicide and mental health hotline Thursday, providing alternatives to veterans to ensure they could reach the VA for support during a crisis.

During a press conference Thursday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced the outage and said veterans needing immediate help could call 877-267-6030 or dial 800-MYVA411 and press 1 to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.

They also could text 838255 or access the Crisis Line via its website.

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According to the Associated Press, those trying to reach the line Thursday were greeted with a message saying the line is "experiencing a service outage."

The 988 text line was unaffected, and those needing assistance also could access the chat function on 988lifeline.org.

The outage is also affecting the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Disaster Distress Helpline.

SAMHSA did not respond to questions regarding the cause or expected duration of the outage by publication.

Sarah Lovenheim, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the department is in contact with the contractor involved in the outage, Intrado, which provides crisis responders for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

"We are tracking a widespread national system outage," Lovenheim said in a tweet Thursday.

"We've taken immediate action to ensure alternative 988 channels are available to the public."

The three-digit 988 number for mental health crisis response was adopted in July after years of lobbying by advocates and medical providers, who hoped the abbreviated phone number would make it easier for people to remember and access the service.

The 988 initiative was signed into law in 2020 and developed by HHS, SAMHSA and the VA.

Since its inception in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has fielded 2.6 million calls, made 1.1 million referrals to VA health services and sent responders to 233,000 life-threatening emergencies. The line averages 2,000 calls a day, and the VA expected that to increase by between 5% and 13% immediately following the launch of the new 988 number, with demand growing from 40% to 60% in the coming years.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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