(Air Force photo illustration by Zachary Hada)

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WASHINGTON — Calls to the Veterans Crisis Line have increased since the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, the Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed Monday.

The crisis line, a suicide prevention tool for veterans and their families, has experienced a 12% increase in call volume, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told veterans organizations on a call Sunday. About 20% of recent calls to the hotline were related to the pandemic, the VA press secretary confirmed.

The staffing levels at the call centers are enough to meet the current demand, Press Secretary Christina Mandreucci said. She said the department is tracking the number of calls and updating its staffing plans to ensure all of them are answered.

The VA posted to its website a list of recommendations for veterans who are anxious about the pandemic. They suggested staying connected with friends and family over the phone and on social media, meditating, reducing their news consumption before going to sleep, doing activities they enjoy, focusing on what they can control, eating a balanced diet and exercising, among other things.

The department is also encouraging VA patients to stay engaged with their treatment by meeting virtually with their mental health providers. VA staff are being trained to transition their patients to telehealth, Mandreucci said.

AMVETS, a national veterans organization, urged its members to check on other veterans as social distancing guidelines continue to be in effect.

“We are highly concerned over the likelihood the suicide crisis is deepening,” said Joe Chenelly, national executive director of AMVETS. "The combination of required physical isolation, the worry about getting sick, and the economic turbulence has the potential to be devastating.”

The group is asking their members to reach out to fellow veterans at least five times each day.

“[We want to] let them know that while they may be alone physically today, you are there for them by phone or online,” Chenelly said.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is also encouraging people to check on veterans who may be struggling.

The committee requested information from the VA about veterans’ mental health during the pandemic, including the call volume and types of calls at the Veterans Crisis Line and whether the VA is successfully transitioning to telehealth for therapy. Lawmakers hadn't received a response as of Tuesday.

The VA is encouraging veterans in crisis, or their families, to contact the Veterans Crisis Line. Dial 1-800-273-8255, and then press 1, or text the crisis line at 838255. An option to chat online is available at Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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