The VA is addressing recent reports about veteran suicides by reviewing its veteran mental healthcare access and appointment protocols.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is reiterating its commitment to veteran mental healthcare access and same-day appointments in emergency situations, coming on the heels of recent media attention to veteran suicides.
The VA has long offered same-day emergency treatment, the agency explained. However, recent reports about multiple veteran suicides has prompted the agency to reiterate its current emergency mental health offerings.
“Providing same-day 24/7 access to mental health crisis intervention and support for Veterans, service members and their families is our top clinical priority,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement. “It’s important that all Veterans, their family and friends know that help is easily available.”
The agency also noted the various programs it hosts to address mental health in the veteran community, specifically its National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide. The Strategy dials in on individual high-risk patients while also using broad public health messaging.
In fiscal year 2018, the VA treated 1.7 million patients for mental health symptoms. Treatment included psychiatric hospital stays, residential stays, and about 21 million outpatient sessions.
In the first quarter of this year, 90 percent of new patients have received mental healthcare within 30 days of requesting an appointment. Nearly 97 percent of established patients received the same benefit.
This statement comes following news reports about three veterans committing suicide at three different VA facilities. The suicides occurred within a five-day span, reported CBS News.
After two veterans took their own lives outside of separate VA facilities in Georgia, a third unidentified veteran shot himself outside of a VA facility in Texas. Reports indicate the veteran shot himself after finding out he could not receive the help he needed.
These incidents suggest a need for better emergency mental healthcare at the VA, in addition to its existing offerings, said Mark Takano, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
“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,” Takano said in a statement. “All Americans have a role to play in reducing veteran suicide, and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is going to make this issue a top priority.”
In response to the crisis, Takano has called for a committee hearing on mental healthcare access at VA and other options available to address veteran suicide.
In addition to increasing treatment options, Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA), chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, stated that overcoming mental healthcare access stigma would be essential.
“We will redouble our efforts on behalf of our veterans and their loved ones, including our efforts to reduce the stigma of seeking treatment for mental health issues,” Isakson asserted in a statement on his website. “The loss of even one veteran to suicide is unacceptable and devastating. Preventing veteran suicide remains a top priority for our committee, and I will continue working with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to ensure the VA has the resources it needs and the accountability in place to make sure we are doing everything we can to prevent veteran suicide.”
Mental healthcare access has long been in question at VA. A November 2016 analysis from the Wounded Warrior Project revealed that over one-third of veterans struggle to access mental healthcare within the VA, despite high prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Currently, about 20 veterans die by suicide each day, a far faster rate than civilians. Between 2005 and 2016, veteran suicides rose by about 25 percent, while civilian suicides increased by only 20 percent, per data from the VA.
The VA and other government agencies are working to mediate this. In addition to its National Strategy for Preventing Suicide and same-day mental healthcare access, VA has obliged an executive order to boost veteran mental healthcare access.
The order, signed by President Donald Trump in early 2018, calls on VA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security to refer veterans to mental healthcare within one year of discharge.
More recently, VA announced a community suicide prevention challenge. The agency challenged mayors in Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Nevada, and New York, to prevent suicide through increased public health programming.
“The mayor’s challenge provides a roadmap for how communities can contribute to the national effort of preventing Veteran suicide,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “We are pleased to continue our partnership with SAMHSA, so we can provide suicide-prevention training and support to the communities where Veterans live, work and thrive.”
Date: April 18, 2019