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Witness Testimony of Tyrone Ballesteros, National Veterans Foundation, Office Manager

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee:

On behalf of the National Veterans Foundation I would like to express our appreciation for the opportunity to appear before this subcommittee.

I believe a short description of our organization is in order to put our concerns in perspective.  Briefly stated, the National Veterans Foundation came into existence in 1985 and was founded by Shad Meshad, a psych officer with field experience during the Vietnam Conflict, co-author or the VA Vet Center Program, and the president of our organization.  As a component of our own national toll free LifeLine, we provide training for our counselors in crisis management including suicide prevention and intervention.  In addition, we have 2 staff members who are mental health professionals trained extensively in trauma, crisis and suicide counseling and are on call to assist our staff answering the LifeLine and to intervene and/or follow up as the need dictates.

It should be noted that in addition to not having any contractual relationships with any governmental agency we are not a contracted crisis center with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

More to the point of the task before this subcommittee today, we have an area of concern we believe should be addressed by its members to insure the Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline is performing to its potential.  Our concern is whether or not the personnel responding to calls received by the National Suicide Prevention Hotline after the veteran caller is directed to the VA medical center in Canadaigua, New York, have received the proper training in both suicide prevention and the causes of suicidal tendencies specific to veterans.

Why do we bring this concern before this subcommittee?  Unfortunately when our staff members have called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to test the services offered and were subsequently directed to the VA center in Canadaiqua, the results were not satisfactory, at least not to the standards of our organization.

The primary advice given to our staff members was to refer them to the closest VA medical facility and advising them to “hang on” and be patient until that facility could contact them.  Our concern is the reluctance of the person advising the caller to address any immediate suicidal ideation and the lack of exploration of other means to provide the caller with immediate assistance.

This leads us to believe the personnel receiving these calls are not properly trained.  We could have simply experienced an anomaly in the system as we are not privy to the training guidelines.   used by the VA center in Canadaigua and our survey was not done with approved statistical sampling as that is not a function of our organization.  But, to ignore the problems we experienced could place a veteran’s life in danger.

If the caller simply receives the telephone number, address, and directions to the closest VA medical center, this would be wholly inadequate by anyone’s standards.  We offer the following questions that this subcommittee may wish to investigate further and which we believe can be answered in the affirmative if the proper training is provided:

Question Number 1:

Are procedures in place that provide for follow up communication with the caller if the need is determined during the initial call?

Question Number 2:

Has an attempt been made to determine whether any veteran specific problems are the cause of the suicidal situation and, if so, was this information used to provide the caller with proper guidance?

Question Number 3:

Are there mental health professionals trained in suicide prevention techniques and causes of suicidal tendencies specific to veterans available to immediately intervene if necessary?

Question Number 4:

Are the personnel who staff the hotline adequately trained in crisis communication listening skills and suicide intervention?

We simply ask that this subcommittee review the procedures, protocols, and training that are in place to insure a suicidal veteran can make a telephone call to seek help and know that properly trained professionals will answer their call.

The Congress and the President have been ardent supporters of training our active duty service members to prepare them for any eventuality they might experience during combat.  We believe the training of support personnel that help our service members after they have left active duty is equally important.

Our organization remains available to answer any questions you or your staff may have and to provide you with any additional documentation you may request.

Mr. Chairman, again I thank you and the other subcommittee members for allowing me to appear before you today.