Atlanta to get new vet crisis call center

Aiming to stem a national epidemic of veteran suicides, U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said Sunday that his agency will locate a new mental health crisis line in Atlanta by the end of the year.

Speaking before the national convention of Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta, McDonald said the call center will have 200 workers and be available everyday at all hours to take calls.

“We are keeping a sacred trust to help veterans in need,” McDonald told the large crowd.

The venture will have an initial $25 million economic impact on Atlanta, he said.

VA medical centers across the country have struggled for years to stem the spate of veteran suicides. Officials say the highest rate of suicide is among Vietnam vets, and the fastest growing rate is among women.

Many veterans return from war suffering post traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues, making it difficult for them to adjust to civilian life.

Atlanta was chosen for the crisis line due to the number of mental health professionals trained in this area, who work in places such as Emory University Hospital, Grady Memorial Hospital and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who was also on hand for the announcement.

Isakson said he believes the center will reduce the number of suicides among vets. Some 20 veterans a day take their own lives in this country.

“They gave us everything they had when we needed it. We owe the same to them,” said Isakson, who is chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

He added, “Time is everything. You’ve got to be quick and accessible in order to save those lives.”

Earlier this year, a report noted that a hotline operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs allowed crisis calls to go into voicemail, and callers did not always receive help quickly. The report by the VA’s office of inspector general says the crisis hotline received more than 450,000 calls in 2014, a 40 percent increase over the previous year, according to The Associated Press.

About 1 in 6 calls were redirected to backup centers when the crisis line was overloaded, the AP reported. Calls went to voicemail at some backup centers, including least one where staffers apparently were unaware there was a voicemail system, the report said.

Suicide is hardly the only issue.

In May, an Army veteran of two Afghanistan tours killed one person and wounded several others in Houston before a SWAT officer fatally shot him, police said. Police Lt. John McGalin said 25-year-old Dionisio Garza III of California was likely experiencing a “mental health crisis.” Garza’s relatives have said he was haunted by his Afghanistan deployment.

McDonald said both the VA and the public have to work to eliminate the stigma that many veterans feel about seeking help for mental health problems. “Culture change is up to all of us,” he said.

He also lamented the shortage of mental health professionals graduating from schools.

William De Benedictis Jr., an 84-year-old vet attending the convention, praised the announcement of additional crisis line workers. Currently the VA has only one such center in New York.

“It gives a lot more people easier access,” said the man who fought in Korea and Vietnam. “More accessibility — that’s what it boils down to.”

The VA in Atlanta has been troubled by suicides in the past.

In 2013, a rash of veteran suicides at the center were blamed on mismanagement within its mental health unit. In 2014, the center came under intense scrutiny after the murder-suicide of Marine veteran Kisha Holmes. She killed her three children and then herself at the family’s Cobb County apartment. VA officials had known she was in distress, and identified her as a suicide risk.

This past winter, officials at the Atlanta VA Medical Center on Clairmont Road installed an anti-climbing fence atop the parking decks. The fence is 10 feet tall and constructed with welded mesh wire.

To reach the veterans’ mental health crisis line call: 1 800 273 8255 Press 1.