Prevent vet suicides by getting the mind right
I’ll bet you didn’t know September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. I’ll bet you don’t consider suicide a disease. I’ll bet you think suicide is a choice people make. Probability is very high that I will collect on all three bets.
I have known several servicemembers and veterans who committed suicide. I can honestly say, in only one case did it cross my mind that suicide was a possibility. The others were complete surprises. Why? Perhaps, lack of awareness of signs of suicidal behaviors or the environments in which suicidal ideations flourish. So far this month, I haven’t heard one public service announcement, media reference or so much as one bus sign bring attention to this issue.
We need to do a much better job of raising awareness. We need to recognize suicide as a disease. Not a weakness. Not simply a reaction to stress. Not a solution to a problem. But as a disease process, like cancer and heart disease. Like other diseases, it may have its cause in genetics, environment, be a secondary condition to another disease, or some combination of all these factors.
When seen as a disease, we can do what we do for other diseases: mobilize resources, engage institutions and scientists, do research necessary to treat, cure and prevent it. We can also realize that suicide is not a choice. People who commit suicide do not willingly choose to die. They commit suicide because they have run out of options to alleviate pain and suffering. They see no other way. Why? Because we lack awareness and do not acknowledge suicide as a disease. We do not invest enough time or money to discover its causes or to devise effective treatments.
With wide abandonment of psychotherapy by our health care industry as too expensive, the medical community has been left with a small formulary of drugs to treat the disease of suicide. All such drugs are attempts to numb the pain and mental anguish. None of these drugs are intended to treat, cure or prevent it. All these drugs come with severe side effects.
Servicemembers and veterans are our canary in the mine shaft of suicide. The Department of Veterans Affairs just released updated numbers in its VA National Suicide Data Report 2005-2016 indicating that the veteran suicide rate is still increasing. Just among veterans ages 18-34, there were 45 suicide deaths per 100,000 population in 2016, compared to 40.4 suicide deaths per 100,000 population in 2015. The suicide rate was 1.5 times greater for veterans than for nonveteran adults in 2016. These facts alone should alarm us and spur action.
VA medical research has clearly failed its clinical counterparts by its lack of solution focus and innovation, and its utter lack of urgency. The VA owns this problem. It has made some progress in awareness and identification of potential suicide victims, but remains slow to respond with innovative and effective treatment.
The time has come for new technology. As the former chief technology officer at the VA, I can attest to a new treatment modality that I believe offers our veterans real hope against suicide. Magnetic EEG-guided resonance therapy (MeRT) is a non-pharmaceutical, non-invasive treatment being pioneered by an elite group of neuroscientists. Unlike many options, MeRT does not treat symptoms, but attacks the EEG-identified cause of the anomaly, without need for additional medications.
MeRT assesses brain function, facilitating restoration of proper brain function by gently nudging brain frequencies into alignment via magnetic resonance. With restored brain function, patients report improvement in sleep quality, stress management, concentration, focus, mood, motivation and clarity of thought.
Supportive data are piling up, including those from pilots and clinical trials in the Department of Defense. Testimonials and data speak for themselves. In recent randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials, veterans averaged a 61 percent reduction in post-traumatic stress disorder symptom severity with only four weeks of MeRT treatment. It almost feels like a miracle witnessing these patients reclaim their lives after treatment, but it’s really in the science.
While research indicates the potential of this treatment option, the VA has yet to integrate it or to undertake its own clinical trials. While this delay is unconscionable, a key bill is pending in Congress that could be our silver bullet.
Introduced by Rep. Steve Knight, R-Calif., and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., H.R.1162/S.514, the No Hero Left Untreated Act, would direct the VA to establish a pilot program on MeRT within two VA facilities. Passage of this legislation would be a major step forward toward creating greater access to this treatment option for those who need it most.
This legislation has already passed the House of Representatives with 56 cosponsors. The Senate version of the bill, recently included in a legislative hearing, still awaits further consideration by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. The time is now to get it passed and signed into law by the president.
We must continue to explore promising treatment modalities like MeRT to address the growing veteran suicide rate. The current treatment options used by the VA are clearly not doing enough. I implore Congress to act now and to help prevent more lives from being needlessly lost. Let us honor those who have served and sacrificed so much by investing in their lives and their future.
Ed Meagher recently retired as the executive vice president for Healthcare Strategy at Information Innovators Inc. Previously, he served as Vice President Healthcare Group at SRA International, where he was responsible for the strategic implementation of health care programs for the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense Military Health System.