VA takes heat for suicide prevention struggles
December 2, 2011
WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs is sincerely trying to prevent suicides among veterans, but it’s just not succeeding, according to military advocates.
Veterans groups told lawmakers Friday that suicide prevention efforts continue to be only marginally effective at stemming what they see as an epidemic of suicides among former military personnel.
“Veterans do not know how to find services they need or apply for the benefits they have earned,” said Tom Tarantino, senior legislative associate for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Even when they are able to find appropriate services, many vets report frustration in accessing these services.”
Health researchers estimate that roughly 18 veterans a day take their own lives. VA officials said there was an average of 950 suicide attempts a month among veterans already in their health care programs during the last fiscal year. Nearly 800 patients did kill themselves during that time.
Lawmakers at Friday’s hearing called those statistics unsettling. Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., said she is frustrated by the “persistent prevalence” of suicides. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, called it a haunting tragedy that troops could “survive the battlefield abroad only to return home to suicide.”
The criticism was the second sobering indictment of VA’s mental health programs this week. On Wednesday, senators blasted the long wait times and frustrating bureaucracy veterans endure when seeking mental health services through the department, saying their mistakes may be jeopardizing the health of an entire generation of veterans.
Friday’s hearing also came just days after the death of Sean Alexander Dacus, a 31-year-old veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who shot himself outside a North Dakota emergency clinic. Before taking his life, he wrote “do not resuscitate” and “donate organs please” on his body with a marker from the clinic’s coffee shop, according to news reports.
Thomas Berger, a health director with the Vietnam Veterans of America, called Dacus’ death a disturbing wake-up call and a dramatic illustration of the need to find solutions quickly.
VA officials responded that they are making progress. The department’s suicide hotline has fielded more than 500,000 calls in the last four years, and prevented more than 18,000 suicide attempts by its count. Representatives also are available to help via online chats or text messaging, and the department has launched numerous outreach campaigns for existing programs.
René Campos, deputy director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, said lawmakers need to find more money for research into the causes of suicide, noting that current prevention efforts by the VA and military are limited by current assumptions about the triggers and markers of severe depression.
Tarantino and others also said they’d like to see dramatic improvements in outreach efforts, noting that most of the existing programs are geared largely towards troops and veterans.
“If I’m a [suicidal] soldier … I’m not the one who’s going to reach out for help,” Tarantino said. “It’s going to be my girlfriend, or my mother. They’re the ones the VA has to reach.”
Dr. Jan Kemp, a psychologist and the VA’s National Mental Health Director for Suicide Prevention, said officials are working on those fixes, and are confident they are on the right track.
“But veterans are still dying by suicide,” she said. “That means we have more work to do. As long as one veteran dies by suicide, I haven’t done my job good enough.”
Veterans considering suicide or concerned friends or relatives can reach the VA’s crisis centers by calling 1-800-273-8255, texting 83825, or visiting www.VeteransCrisisLine.net. The services are staffed all day, every day.