Veterans in South Jersey will get a quicker response for mental-health crises under a pilot program that is expanding to other Veterans Administration centers.

The Wilmington VA Medical Center will join those in Philadelphia and East Orange in providing immediate help to veterans who are depressed or in emotional distress.

The VA now connects veterans to a crisis line staffed by mental-health professionals.

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Previously, the VA had asked veterans to hang up and call a separate 800 number.

But Middle Township veteran Joseph Griffies, who lobbied for the changes, said asking a veteran to find a pen or paper and write down a second number might be asking too much of emotionally distraught people who were reaching out for help once but might be less inclined to do so again.

“He needs help right away. Those four minutes we think we’re saving mean everything,” Griffies said.

An estimated 22 veterans per day commit suicide in the United States, according to the VA.

U.S. Navy veteran Charles Ingram III, 51, of Egg Harbor Township, committed suicide by immolation outside the VA outpatient clinic in Northfield on March 19. The clinic did not have weekend hours and was closed at the time.

The VA increased staffing at the clinic with additional behavioral health specialists.

U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, pushed the VA to initiate the changes at VA Medical Centers in Philadelphia and East Orange. The new phone prompts went live at the main number to the Wilmington VA at the end of May.

Griffies said he called to test the system to make sure it was transferring veterans to live mental-health professionals as it promised.

“I tested it a few times until they started sending Middle Township police to my door,” Griffies said.

Despite his assurances that he was merely testing the hotline as a veterans advocate, the operators wanted to make sure he was not a harm to himself, he said.

“And that’s a good thing,” he said.

Griffies is also lobbying state lawmakers to consider creating veterans courts in New Jersey with staff who have military experience. A veteran’s misdemeanor offenses would be adjudicated by a veterans court that would ensure her or she gets the help needed.

Some veterans are dealing with substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. A dedicated court would be more familiar with the workings of the VA.

The Wilmington VA can be reached at 302-994-2511.

Staff writer

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