Ending the “Tragedy of Suicide” Among Veterans
September is National Suicide Prevention Month. It is a month of particular importance for our current and former military members. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), an American veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes. This equates to 22 veterans a day, or 8030 a year. In fact, the suicide rate among veterans is an astounding 35.9 per 100 000, compared to 12.7 for the broader US population.
Disturbingly, many experts believe that the number of veteran suicides is “probably a lot greater than reported”. After all, the stigma and religious prohibitions surrounding suicide often prevent accurate labeling. Furthermore, medical examiners are often unaware of victims’ military service.
In some cases, veterans take their lives for the same reasons as their civilian counterparts: depression, other mental health issues, “difficult life circumstances”. However, the statistically higher suicide rate among veterans suggests that other factors are at play. Some experts point to veterans’ injuries, disabilities, headaches, and various forms of chronic pain. Others point to (potentially related) mental conditions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often linked to military combat.
To treat these issues, approximately 20% of US veterans rely on the VA system, rather than private healthcare. Thus, in 2007, congress mandated the VA to take more aggressive suicide prevention measures. Such measures included creating a 24 hour crisis line to direct troubled veterans to care (1-800-273-8255), and hiring suicide prevention coordinators in each VA hospital to meet weekly with high risk veterans.
But the VA system has largely failed. As revealed through the 2014 VA scandal, which prompted the resignation of Secretary Shinseki, the VA has left thousands of veterans on lengthy waiting lists. A medical center in Phoenix, for example, made 1700 veterans wait an average of 115 days for an initial visit! Moreover, almost a third of high risk veterans aren’t receiving the recommended follow-up care and over 250,000 disability claims are stuck in a processing backlog. To make matters worse, the VA has allegedly engaged in record falsification to hide these shortcomings.
In response, President Obama announced 19 executive actions last month to improve mental healthcare for active military members and veterans. Among other things, the actions aim to increase veterans’ access to psychiatric medications, enhance suicide prevention training, advance research on PTSD, and improve coordination between the Department of Defense and VA on mental healthcare services. Obama also unveiled partnerships with the private sector to provide student loan relief and mortgage interest breaks for veterans. The hope is to tackle some of “the root causes of depression among vets, including joblessness and homelessness”.
Realistically, the entire VA system needs an overhaul to address the suicide crisis. Jean Somers, mother of an Iraq war veteran who took his life, believes “We have to start to think big”. But the newly announced measures are certainly a step towards tackling this tragedy and restoring the “sacred trust” of our veterans. In the words of Obama, “They were there for America. We now need to be there for them.”
Flickr photo credit: MarineCorps NewYork