The VA had millions set aside for suicide prevention messaging. They spent $57,000.

Matt Saintsing
December 18, 2018 - 11:52 am

ID 60374076 © Prazis | Dreamstime.com

Retired Marine Corps Col. Jim Turner put on his dress blues for the last time, drove to the Bay Pines VA clinic in Tampa, Fla., exited his truck, sat on his military records and shot himself with a rifle. The Dec. 10 suicide is just one of the latest tradgedies to hit the veteran community, the vast majority of which tend to not make headlines. 

The VA says suicide prevention is their “number one clinical priority,” but a new study finds they didn’t use millions of dollars available to reach veterans this year, according to the Government Accountability Office. 

Of the $6.2 million earmarked for suicide prevention media outreach in 2018, the agency used only $57,000—less than one percent. Additionally, VA social media efforts designed to engage veterans on suicide prevention dropped significantly from previous years.

In 2016, the VA had 339 social media posts related to suicide prevention, but that number plunged to 157 in 2017.

“At a time when 20 veterans a day still die by suicide, VA should be doing everything in its power to inform the public about the resources available to veterans in crisis, said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn), ranking member on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee who requested the study. 

“Unfortunately, VA has failed to do that, despite claiming the elimination of veteran suicide as its highest clinical priority.”

Of the 20 veterans who take their own life each day, the majority are not in close contact with the VA in the months leading up to their deaths, which veteran and mental health advocates say means the department should step up their outreach efforts. 

Part of the problem comes from a void in leadership at highest levels of the agency, according to the report, VA’s National Director for Suicide Prevention was vacant from July 2017 through April 2018. “(Veterans Health Administration) officials that worked on the campaign told us they did not have leadership available to make decisions about the suicide prevention campaign during this time,” the report reads.

But the VA says that's the fault of former Secretary David Shulkin. 

During Shulkin's "brief tenure" at the agency, says VA spokesman Curt Cashour, 

The VA is blaming former VA Secretary David Shulkin "VA’s suicide prevention outreach dropped significantly, and the suicide prevention office had no permanent leader for nearly nine months."

He continues, "Within weeks of his arrival at VA, then-Acting Secretary Wilkie appointed Dr. Keita Franklin as VA’s new suicide prevention director, and she is reviewing the spending for this important program as part of her duties."

Shulkin did not immediately respond to request for comment. 

Cashour adds that the department accepts GAO's recommendation "to do more to evaluate the effectiveness of the suicide prevention media outreach campaign," and that the agency will "finalize metrics, targets, and the subsequent evaluation strategy. "

If you are a veteran in crisis, you are not alone. Veterans can call the Veterans crisis line 24-hours a day, 365-days a year at 1-800-273-8255. Press 1. 

Want to get more connected to the great stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here  to sign up for our weekly newsletter.