New Live Chat Feature on VA Website Helps Those in Pain Find a Path to Treatment, Healing, or Just Somebody to Listen
Transcripts give rare window into what it’s like when veterans log-on for help
New York Times-Sunday Observer
July 15, 2011
In a wing of a Veterans Affairs hospital in Canandaigua, N.Y., a small staff runs a national Internet chat service for veterans in crisis. Together with its national crisis hot line, the V.A. is offering veterans and their families a way to seek confidential help, anonymously if necessary, by phone or computer. The main goal has been suicide prevention, but counselors handle requests involving any kind of emergency. Below are five transcripts of recent chats with veterans, redacted to protect their privacy. Caitlin Thompson, a crisis care coordinator who supplied the transcripts to The New York Times, has highlighted some of the common themes and approaches they use to help those in need.
Read several actual samples of chat conversations between veterans in crisis and VA counselors trying to get them help:
RELATED STORY: The VA Tries to Get Beyond Its Culture of No
by Lawrence Downes
New York Times, July 16, 2011
The Veterans Affairs Department says that it is not only making strides in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries and in preventing suicides, but is also upending its reputation for bureaucratic delays and unresponsiveness.
It is easy to be skeptical. But then there is this: a small wing of a V.A. hospital in Canandaigua, N.Y., where a staff of about 120 runs a national phone and Internet chat service for veterans in crisis. Its mission is to connect veterans to help as quickly and efficiently as possible. One online-chat counselor, Laurie Courtney, told me proudly that this was “the new V.A.” She and three colleagues, in a brightly lighted room with barely enough space for their computers, chairs, coats and handbags, handle online conversations all day. Dozens of others staff the phone lines.
Their work has the relentlessness of battlefield medicine, with pleas for help coming from all sides. One Vietnam veteran has struggled with survivor’s guilt for 43 years. Another has lost his job and his marriage, and agrees to try V.A.-sponsored therapy, “if it will stop these dreams.” Transcripts of the chats, redacted for privacy, show counselors using gentle questions and encouragement: “How can I help you?” “It sounds like you have some good friends.” “Thank you for your service.” “I’m going to have someone call you right now.”
The counselors aren’t therapists or case managers; they just tell people where and how to get care and then follow up if they can. They can’t always know if a person really is in crisis or is even a veteran. But they say that dealing with the occasional pranksters and harassers is a necessary part of a program that tries to be radically open and welcoming. That, for the V.A., would be a sea change.
There are now two million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a small but growing portion of the total veteran population of 23 million. Not all saw combat; not all bear physical or psychological scars. Those who do pose a challenge this nation is only beginning to confront.
In May, a federal court blisteringly criticized the V.A. for “unchecked incompetence” in failing to provide mental health care to veterans. The judges cited backlogs of hundreds of thousands of benefits claims and the lack of suicide-prevention experts in hundreds of outpatient clinics. Veterans can wait months for treatment and years to have their disability claims processed.
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