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R.I. senator calls for more resources to reduce 'staggering' rates of suicide among veterans

Sen. Jack Reed spoke at the Providence VA Medical Center's annual Mental Health Summit on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.

G. WAYNE MILLER, THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL/TNS

By G. WAYNE MILLER | The Providence Journal, R.I. | Published: August 29, 2019

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Tribune News Service) — With the suicide rate among military veterans at epidemic level, Sen. Jack Reed on Thursday stressed the importance of services to reduce deaths and praised those involved in providing them. He applauded recent increased federal funding of efforts while calling for more money and resources.

Speaking at the Providence VA Medical Center's annual Mental Health Summit, Reed recalled recent Congressional testimony by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert L. Wilkie Jr., who cited a grim statistic: 20 veterans in America die by suicide every day.

"That's a staggering number," Reed said. "This is entirely unacceptable."

According to Reed, "of those 20 victims, only six used VA health care in the two years prior to death. But the good news is that when they're actively involved in a program, it's a much lower percentage. Of course, our goal is zero. Absolutely zero, and we have to recognize that we need to do more — and much, much more."

A packed auditorium of VA clinicians and employees, chaplains, clergy and professionals from the private and nonprofit sectors attended this year's summit, whose theme was "The Importance of Spirituality on Mental Health Outcomes and Suicide Prevention and Postvention," or support of family and friends after a life has been lost to suicide.

Clinical psychologist Nathan Stein, suicide prevention coordinator at the Providence VA, said that about 70% of veterans' suicide are by means of firearms, compared with about 50% in the general population.

Dr. Marek S. Kopacz, from the VA's VISN 2 Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention in Canandaigua, New York, delivered the keynote address, speaking for more than an hour about research confirming the importance of spirituality and religious belief in reducing the risk of suicide and poor mental health outcomes.

Reed, who graduated from the United States Military Academy and served in the Army, is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said that 30 and 40 years ago, veterans at the Providence VA were treated for physical injury.

"Now we recognize that so many of our veterans, because of constant deployments, because of the stress of the efforts we've seen in Afghanistan and Iraq and in Mali, all across the globe, are coming home not with visible wounds but very, very serious invisible wounds and we have to deal with them," he said.

"And we have to deal with them in a very, very creative and thoughtful way. And it's also not just an institutional response for the VA, it's a community response."

Reed said the recently approved $8.6 billion for VA mental-health services and $206 million specifically for suicide-prevention programs was welcomed — but should not be the end.

"That's a start," the senator said.

©2019 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)
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