The fight against veteran suicide
By DAVID J. SHULKIN | Tribune News Service | Published: January 29, 2016
A national panel of health experts recommended this week that all adults be screened for depression during visits with their primary care providers. That’s welcome news at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where we’ve been screening all veterans in our health care system annually for more than 10 years.
The new recommendation, developed by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, should strengthen our collective resolve to address the toll depression and its potentially devastating consequences, especially suicide, are taking on our society.
At the VA, our sense of urgency is heightened by the discouraging statistic that America’s veterans are at higher overall risk for suicide than the general public. Veterans suffering from conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and chronic pain are particularly vulnerable.
We are working hard to find solutions to this national tragedy. The VA offers unparalleled clinical mental health care and support services to help veterans who find themselves in crisis and conducts innovative research on suicide prevention.
Among our most important statistical findings to date is that veterans who engage in VA care are less likely to take their own lives than those who don’t. This is an encouraging sign that what we are doing to prevent suicide is working, but we must do more.
To that end, the VA is sponsoring a national summit on veteran suicide prevention in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. The summit will bring together VA experts on suicide, veterans and their families, community mental health leaders, and other key partners to focus on how we can all do more to prevent suicide among veterans.
Nearly a year ago, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama, giving the VA additional authority to expand suicide prevention efforts for veterans in partnership with the community. We have made significant progress on implementing the provisions of this legislation, named after a Marine Corps veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who took his life in 2011.
Hunt’s mother and stepfather, Susan and Richard Selke, will be among the speakers at our upcoming summit. Their commitment to improving mental health care for veterans like their son has been inspiring.
We know that veteran suicide is a highly complex problem, but our focused research program is constantly uncovering new and better ways to prevent it. A recent VA study was the first to document that sexual trauma during military service increases the risk of suicide. As we learn more about the conditions and experiences that account for increased suicide risk among veterans, we can develop more evidence-based treatments.
The VA’s collaborations with the Department of Defense and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify veterans in every state’s mortality data has, for the first time, made it possible to make informed statements about suicide risk among veterans by age, gender, period of service and other important factors.
The VA is also harnessing the “big data” of our unique, national electronic health record to develop and test new interventions based on that data.
Suicide is not always predictable, but it is preventable. As a doctor, I know that when it comes to suicide prevention, there is no substitute for the human connection: sitting down with a veteran; showing genuine concern; taking a military history (rarely done outside the military or VA health systems); asking well-informed questions; and listening to what the veteran has to say.
Strong relationships between veterans and those who care about and for them are critical. To help veterans build and maintain meaningful relationships with their care teams, families and communities, we need the support of all Americans.
We want everyone to know that each of us can make a difference in the life of a veteran in crisis. Just one small act can make a big difference — it can even save a life.
If you are a veteran in crisis, or want to know how you can help one who is, contact the Veterans Crisis Line by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1, going to veteranscrisisline.net/chat, or sending a text message to 838255.
You will receive free, confidential support from highly trained and experienced responders. Our responders are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and you don’t have to be enrolled in VA health care to get help.
We must be vigilant. Our veterans need and deserve the help of every American in preventing suicide. They were there for us when we needed them — now it’s our turn to be there for them when they need us.
David J. Shulkin is the under secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Readers may write him at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 810 Vermont Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 20420.
©2016 David J. Shulkin
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