Every day, on average, 22 veterans commit suicide — twice the average per 100,000 for the civilian population. It’s an epidemic that experts say is preventable in many cases if proper recognition and intervention is undertaken.
It would be easy to blame the Veterans Administration, but the issue is far more complicated than that. In fact, researchers are discovering that those veterans predisposed to commit suicide exhibited symptoms before they enlisted. The Military Suicide Research Consortium conducted a study that found “that most of the Army’s enlisted men and women with suicidal tendencies had them before they enlisted, and that those at highest risk of making an attempt often had a long history of impulsive anger.”
This past week, 30 veterans fanned out across Capitol Hill to visit congressional offices to lobby in favor of paying more attention to the issue of military suicides. They were from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a group that has made suicide prevention its top priority for 2014:
They’re asking Congress to fund more mental health providers, more care and more access to it. They want an evaluation of what works and what doesn’t. And they want President Barack Obama to appoint an official to focus on the issue.
“Caring for the men and women who have defended freedom is a solemn responsibility that belongs to policymakers, business leaders and citizens alike,” Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told the House and Senate veterans affairs committees this month. “Our warriors continue fighting different types of battles long after our wars are over, and we must continue our fight for them and their families.”
Rieckhoff’s association wants the government to fill 1,000 mental health care positions now open, to ensure that troops receive seamless care as they leave military service and become veterans and to increase mental health care eligibility for combat vets from five years after discharge to at least 15 years.
The VA is not entirely blameless. While they have rapidly increased the number of mental health professionals working for the department and increased funding for suicide prevention programs, the rate of suicides, which had been going down the first decade of the century, spiked in the last few years. At this time, the department has over 1,000 mental health jobs available. Not filling them is a cause for concern.
That’s where The Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act comes in. The legislation was introduced by former Army Brigadier General and Adjutant General of the Montana National Guard Senator John Walsh, who was appointed in February to fill out the remaining term of Senator Max Baucus.
Among the bill’s key objectives is to give veterans more time to receive mental health treatment.
Currently, when a service member separates from active duty — whether they are transitioning to being a veteran or becoming a Reservist or a member of the National Guard — they have five years to receive care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, O’Gorman said. Sometimes it can take longer than five years for service members and veterans to realize they’re experiencing the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress and other mental injuries.
About 25% of IAVA’s members, O’Gorman said, have experienced a delayed onset of PTSD after getting out of the service.
Many times, five years is just not long enough for veterans who are dealing with the stigma of mental health issues. It can take many years to emotionally come to grips with the diagnosis alone, and then it takes time to find and receive the right care.
To address that, Walsh’s bill would extend the time to receive mental health treatment from five years to 15 years.
The legislation also seeks to improve the quality of mental health care providers by making their jobs more competitive with the private sector, O’Gorman said. Right now there are more than 1,000 open jobs at the VA for mental health care jobs, including psychiatric nurses, physician assistants and psychiatrists, among others, she said.
The bill will introduce a pilot initiative that would allow a student to have their loans repaid if they work for the VA, O’Gorman said.
It also calls for annual reviews of care programs within the Defense Department and the VA to ensure resources are being used effectively to help service members and vets struggling with mental health issues.
Further, the legislation points out that the VA and the Defense Department use two different computer systems and mandates that those systems be amended so that they speak to each other more seamlessly.
The legislation would also try to streamline the way the Pentagon and the VA prescribe medication. Currently, they use different drug prescription protocols, Walsh and military experts told CNN, and that can create a difficult situation.
Some will argue — obviously not very loudly — that we don’t have the money. But we sent these men and women off to war, they fought in our name and did so to protect us. Quite simply, we owe them — a debt that includes caring for their minds as well as their bodies. And if we have to spend more money to prevent them from falling so far into hopelessness and despair that they don’t see any way out except taking their own lives, it seems an extraordinarily small price to pay in return for their service.