Veteran suicides at VA facilities prompt bipartisan call to action | News Coverage from USA

Veteran suicides at VA facilities prompt bipartisan call to action

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of lawmakers is calling for more to be done to prevent veteran suicides after three former service members took their lives at Veterans Affairs facilities within five days earlier this month.

On Friday, April 5, a veteran died by suicide in the parking lot of the VA medical center in Dublin, Georgia. The next day, a 68-year-old veteran killed himself outside the main entrance of the Atlanta VA hospital. And on April 9, a veteran shot himself in the waiting room of a VA clinic in Austin, Texas.

“Every new instance of veteran suicide showcases a barrier to access, but with three incidents on VA property in just five days, and six this year alone, it’s critical we do more to stop this epidemic,” Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House VA committee said.

He and more than a dozen other lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and VA committee ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., are slated to hold a rare, bipartisan press conference Monday to draw attention to the crisis.

As he and the other lawmakers prepared for the conference and also a hearing Monday, another veteran died by suicide outside the emergency room of the VA medical center in Cleveland, according to the local Fox affiliate. 

VA officials in a statement provided to USA TODAY offered their “deepest condolences… to the loved ones affected by this death.”

“Due to privacy regulations, we are unable to discuss the specifics of this case,” the agency said.

“It’s clear we are not doing enough to support veterans in crisis,” Takano wrote in an op-ed in The Hill Monday ahead of the conference.

“This mission will require us to reexamine our approach to suicide prevention, exhaust our research possibilities, break the stigma faced by those seeking mental health services and expand the health care and support we offer veterans,” he wrote.

The deaths earlier this month came several weeks after President Donald Trump, calling veteran suicide a “tragedy of staggering proportions,” signed an executive order creating a Cabinet-level task force to coordinate and align efforts across the federal government to help stem the crisis among former service members.

From 2008 through 2016, an average of more than 6,000 veterans took their lives each year. Veterans are 1.5 times more likely than non-veterans to take their lives, according to VA data. In 2016, 6,079 veterans died by suicide, down slightly from 6,281 in 2015. 

The task force, led by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, has a goal of creating a national plan to more effectively lower the number of veteran suicides after numerous programs and billions of dollars allocated to address the problem in recent years have had minimal impact.

Outreach ‘dropped off’

The Government Accountability Office in December that VA suicide-prevention outreach “dropped off” since Trump took office. That included fewer social-media postings, public service announcements and advertisements. The agency spent only $57,000 of more than $6 million that had been budgeted for ads.

“We also found that VA did not have clear goals for evaluating the effectiveness of its outreach activities,” the GAO found.

The VA attributed the drop-off in outreach to leadership changes and a realignment of suicide-prevention efforts. The agency identified veteran suicide as its highest clinical priority last year and released a 10-year strategy to address the crisis.

On Monday, the VA said that since the department began tracking suicides at VA facilities in 2017, there have been more than 260 suicide attempts, and 240 of them have been interrupted.

“All VA facilities provide same-day urgent primary and mental health care services to veterans who need them, and any time an unexpected death occurs at a VA facility, the department conducts a comprehensive review of the case to see if changes in policies and procedures are warranted,” the agency said.

Lawmakers will be joined at the press conference Monday by veterans’ advocacy organizations, including American Veterans(AMVETS) and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

“IAVA has long been the loudest voice in the room clamoring for Congress and the Executive Branch to prioritize veterans suicide as an issue,” IAVA CEO Jeremy Butler said in a statement. “We urge swift movement on this crisis – our veterans’ lives depend on it.” 

Veterans who need help can call the VA crisis line at 800-273-8255 and select option 1. They can also send a text message to 838255, or chat with counselors online. 

In March: Trump ramps up effort to prevent veteran suicides with executive order creating task force

Opinion: I survived combat in Iraq and a suicide attempt at home. But many veterans aren’t so lucky.

Success: Authorities locate the suicidal veteran James Woods used Twitter to help

In depth: Suicide never entered his mind. Then 9/11 happened.

 

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