A Veteran’s potential death by suicide, prevented by quick thinking and an in-vehicle safety and security system, resulted in a partnership that could help save Veterans’ lives.

VA health systems specialist Dr. Jamie Davis was working with a Veteran who reported that her spouse, also a Veteran, was out driving and reported that he did not want to live.

“He wouldn’t tell her where he was, go to the VA, or meet her anywhere,” said Davis. “When asked about locating him through her phone’s GPS, she said his car was OnStar-equipped. We called OnStar. Police were able to coordinate with OnStar to locate him and bring him in safely for an evaluation.”

The story’s happy ending inspired Davis to contact OnStar to develop an official partnership with VHA after she joined the Office of Community Engagement (OCE). OCE facilitates and manages non-monetary partnerships with nongovernmental organizations. It works to improve the quality of life for Veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors.

Transfer to VA crisis line

The partnership became official this year. It will help connect Veterans in crisis with mental health assistance using OnStar’s in-vehicle emergency services button or its smartphone app. Veterans who contact OnStar because of a mental health crisis can be transferred to VA’s Veterans Crisis Line (VCL), a 24/7 hotline that is staffed by trained responders, many of whom are Veterans themselves.

Through the partnership, VA will provide resources and education to OnStar about suicide prevention, military culture and how to determine if the caller has served in the military.

Additional partnership objectives include providing training to VA clinicians and OnStar call center staff to facilitate suicide prevention efforts for Veterans. They’ll also explore opportunities for how to use OnStar tools, techniques and services to improve access to suicide prevention resources.

VA clinicians, for example, will ask at-risk Veterans if they have OnStar. They will include that information in a Veteran’s suicide prevention safety plan as a resource should the Veteran experience emotional distress or a suicidal crisis.

Advisors trained to help with a mental health crisis

“OnStar’s emergency-certified advisors train to help people who have a mental health crisis,” said Ann Maher. Maher is assistant manager of emergency service and technology at OnStar. For Veterans who wish to speak to a crisis line responder, OnStar will provide a “warm hand-off” to VCL.

“We’re not going to conference you in and then hang up. We’re going to stay connected and let the VCL know what’s going on. To bridge all the parties together. We will remain in the background until the person who called in or the crisis counselor determines we’re no longer needed.”

Requires a paid OnStar subscription

OnStar safety and security devices require a trial or paid subscription plan and are available on most General Motors vehicles. Additionally, OnStar’s Guardian smartphone app allows members with active service plans and up to seven family members or friends access from their phones.

The app also has an emergency services button, which can help OnStar advisors locate members in distress. Members can also choose to share their locations with each other within the app.

Suicide prevention is the top clinical priority for VA. Educating partners about suicide prevention and intervention for Veterans is a cornerstone of any partnership VA pursues. Davis said the partnership has the potential to help any Veteran who is in crisis. OnStar will help, regardless of the individual’s discharge status or enrollment in VA care.

Here’s more information on how OCE builds effective partnerships to support Veterans.

Dr. Tracy L. Weistreich is a nurse executive for the VHA Office of Community Engagement.

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Published on Nov. 2, 2020

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