by Arthur Mondale
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a new strategy to combat the number of veteran suicides, one that includes reducing the number through social engagement.
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald and Dr. David J. Shulkin, VA’s under secretary for Health, addressed a packed audience inside the Washington Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C., Feb. 2 during a summit on mental health entitled, Preventing Veteran Suicide: A Call to Action.
Attendees included Department of Defense leaders, national mental health professionals, reps from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, members of Congress, civil rights leaders and other distinguished guests.
Shulkin, the VA’s newest chief executive officer, told the crowd that he is focused on stemming suicide among vets, a health issue for more than a decade as the nation fought wars in the Middle East.
“When I was going through the confirmation process many members of Congress said that this needs to be a top priority, and that’s why we’re focusing on this,” Shulkin said. “Just seeing the number of suicides [among veterans] is just not acceptable.”
But some summit speakers and guests argued that reducing the number of veteran suicides will not only require more engagement and dialogue among VA health care partners, but a societal change as well.
“We’re expecting our veterans with problems to do something that we in our country don’t do. We’re expecting them to say excuse me, I’ve got Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and I’m hurting. Excuse me I feel suicidal, weak and I feel down,’” said Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, founder of the non-profit Give An Hour.
“We don’t do that in our country, in this society. We do not talk about mental health and mental well-being. We don’t value mental health and mental well-being, mental fitness. You can give it whatever term you want, we’re not there yet.”
According to statistics released by the VA Serious Mental Illness Treatment Resource and Evaluation Center, there are five suicides per day among veterans receiving care in the Veterans Health Administration, alarming to Shulkin and others in an era of increased outreach and in-house training within the administration.
Moreover, from 2007 to 2015, the VA’s Veteran Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255; press 1), accepted 2 million calls from veterans, relatives and family members; 53,000 resulted in the “dispatch of emergency services to callers in imminent suicidal crisis,” and 320,000 calls ended in referrals, according to statistics released by the VA Office of Public Affairs.
Even with statistics that show many veterans are actively seeking VA services, the number of suicides are still unsettling to VA senior executives.
“There are tragedies out there every day,” Shulkin said.
Tragedies were highlighted at the summit during poignant discussions from veterans who were previously suicidal, and parents of veterans who took their own life. But VA senior executives aren’t excluding the current active duty population, many of who, will leave the military and enter the VA health care system this year, adding to the approximately 29,000 veterans who live in Washington, D.C., alone, according to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics (NCVAS).
Shulkin told the Pentagram regardless of military affiliation he wants to hear about the issues that are preventing people from accessing care.
VA leaders are already aware of barriers like privacy and confidentiality concerns, according to Shulkin. And senior VA leaders are promoting options for concerned active duty personal to consider, to include seeking help at a VA readjustment counseling services (RCS) center. Currently there are five physical locations in the National Capital Region.
“The vet centers are a wonderful resource that veterans use, and active duty military can use them, too,” said Dr. Maureen Fay McCarthy, deputy chief, Patient Care Services officer and acting assistant deputy under secretary for Health for Patient Care Services. “And this includes veterans that have been dishonorably discharged.”
For example, approximately 400 active duty personnel sought help for Military Sexual Trauma at VA readjustment counseling service centers nationwide last year alone; confidentiality could have been a factor for why these hundreds sought treatment in RCS centers instead of within Department of Defense clinics, McCarthy said.
“The active duty personnel feel safer going to our vet [RCS] centers because of privacy issues,” she said. But she warned, “We may be in a situation where we have to disclose [information].”
Still, VA leaders are intent on taking “actionable steps” to change the current mental health culture, and the fear that prevents both active duty and veterans from seeking help.
“One thing that I know as a physician is that everyone needs somebody advocating for them … particularly for people with mental health disorders, said Shulkin. “people aren’t able to advocate for themselves the way they would if they were healthy.”