Military, veteran suicide at a ‘crisis point.’ Lawmakers push DoD, VA for answers

Abbie Bennett
May 21, 2019 - 6:31 pm

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The United States is “at a crisis point” with military and veteran suicide and on Tuesday, members of Congress pressed the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs for answers.

"I understand why we lose troops in combat,” ranking member Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss. “I can't understand why we're losing them at home."

Chairwoman Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said there were 321 active-duty suicides and 144 Reserve suicides last year, the highest number since 2012. The disturbing figures were presented during a joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee and House Veterans Affairs Committee tackling service member and veteran suicide and what DoD and the VA are doing to address it. Tuesday's was the latest of several suicide-prevention hearings on the Hill so far this session -- more than Congress held all of last year.

About 20 veterans die by suicide each day, according to the VA.

“These aren’t just numbers, these are servicemembers who were willing to die for our country but took their own lives instead,” Speier said. “Servicemembers we failed.”

Death by suicide is more common among troops and veterans than civilians. Military service “appears to be a causal pathway” for increased suicide risk, “due to access to and familiarity with firearms, post-traumatic stress, depression, loss of community, alienation, head injuries and substance abuse,” Speier said. Those issues take root during service and worsen through a service member or a veteran’s experience with DoD and the VA, she said.

DoD and the VA should be more proactive in detecting, preventing and treating suicide risk “from the moment an individual signs up, to well after they leave service,” Speier said.

Kelly said he is concerned that the high rate of suicide among service members and veterans “will soon become a fact of life and that we are beginning to accept it as a natural consequence of service. We cannot let that happen.

“We are at a crisis point.”

Suicide can have a profound emotional effect on fellow service members, and Kelly said it can “lead to additional suicides of a ‘contagion effect’” and as a result must be treated “not just as a personal mental health issue, but as a readiness issue.”

Kelly asked DoD officials at the hearing what was being done to combat the stigma of seeking mental health help.

Only about a third of the veterans who die by suicide on average receive VA care in the two years preceding their deaths.

Capt. Mike Colston, director of mental health policy and oversight for DoD, said the department embeds psychiatrists with units on deployment and also evaluates every medical patient for mental health issues, no matter the reason they’re at a hospital.

Colston said 25 percent of service members seek mental health care in the final year of their service, adding that the struggle is finding out why those troops don’t seek care earlier, and how to combat the stigma of mental health issues.

Kelly said many veterans wait to get help, or don’t seek it at all because “they fear being removed from service” and damaging their military careers.

It’s “almost impossible” to lose a security clearance for seeking mental health help, Colston said. “Are we going to kick you out for a mental health condition? Probably not.” Colston did say the DoD should work on building trust among troops so service members report issues earlier.

Kelly also asked if service branches are using non-commissioned officers, the “leaders closest to service members” to help identify “self-destructive behaviors” and get them help. Colston and Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency, said DoD trains NCOs, commanders and service members in general on how to recognize signs of distress and find help for fellow troops.

Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., chairwoman of the HVAC subpanel on health and leader of the new Women Veterans Task Force, said another veteran died by suicide on VA property over the weekend, and had allegedly been turned away by the VA for a less-than-honorable discharge.

VA National Director of Suicide Prevention Keita Franklin said those with less-than-honorable discharges are a “high-risk group” for death by suicide which is why the VA sent more than half a million letters to veterans, saying those with such discharges can still get help from the VA.

VA Chief Readjustment Counseling Officer Michael Fischer said the VA is working on face-to-face interactions with veterans in the community to ensure they know the care available to them.

When DoD and VA officials were asked why military suicide rates have risen since 2012, Colston said, “I don’t know.”

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For more information on potential warning signs of suicide, click here.

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go toveteranscrisisline.net.

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