WASHINGTON – With veterans now accounting for one of every five suicides in the nation, the Department of Veterans Affairs is under pressure from both the courts and Congress to fix its mental-health services in an attempt to curb the death toll.
“The suicide rate is out of control – it’s epidemic proportions right now,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “There are very few programs that are effective, and there’s a serious lack of national awareness.”
While the government keeps no official tally of veteran suicides, the VA last year said that veterans account for roughly 20 percent of the estimated 30,000 suicides annually in the United States.
The latest attack on the VA came two weeks ago from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which ordered a major overhaul of the agency. The court said that with an average of 18 veterans killing themselves each day, “the VA’s unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough; no more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligations.” On Capitol Hill, when the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee took up the issue Wednesday, senators made clear that they expect the VA to improve its performance.
“We do not need the courts to tell us that much more can and should be done to relieve the invisible wounds of war,” said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the chairwoman of the committee. “Although some steps have been taken, the stigma against mental-health issues continues within the military, and VA care is still often too difficult to access. This has had a tragic impact.”
In at least 13 cases, Murray said, veterans committed suicide or died from drug overdoses while waiting to receive help from the VA. Murray, who called the hearing, said that service members and veterans alike “continue to take their own lives at an alarming rate.” She noted that in April, the VA’s suicide hot line fielded more than 14,000 calls, or more than 400 a day, the most ever for a single month.
Antonette Zeiss, acting deputy chief officer mental health services with the VA’s Office of Patient Care Services, said the department’s call center has received more than 400,000 calls since it began nearly four years ago. Of those, she said, more than 55,000 were referred to local VA suicide prevention coordinators for same-day or next-day service.
George Taylor, deputy assistant secretary of defense for force health protection and readiness, told the panel that “maintaining and enhancing the psychological health” of service members is a top priority for the Defense Department. And he said the department is “very concerned” about the number of suicides in the military over the past 10 years.
“While the overwhelming majority of service members effectively cope with the stress of serving in a military at war, there are those who have difficulty adapting to the stress and strain that an increased operational tempo often places on them and their families,” he said. “The loss of even one life to suicide is heartbreaking — it degrades the readiness of the force and has a profound impact on both the unit and the family members left behind.”
Taylor said the department has succeeded in slowing the steady increases in suicides that began in 2006.
Rob Hotakainen: firstname.lastname@example.org