'Overworked' VA suicide prevention staff who can't 'keep up' get help from Congress

Abbie Bennett
December 11, 2019 - 3:29 pm

Photo by Zachary Hada/55th Wing Public Affairs

This story was originally published on Dec. 11, 2019. It was updated on Jan. 2, 2020 at 9:45 a.m.

The Department of Veterans Affairs staff tasked with preventing veteran suicides by identifying high-risk vets and making sure they get help are "overworked" and "unable to keep up" with demand, Congress says.

On Dec. 11, the Senate unanimously passed a bipartisan, bicameral bill that aims to help. At the start of the new year, the president signed the bill into law. 

The Support for Suicide Prevention Coordinators Act introduced earlier this year is intended to ensure those VA staffers have the tools and resources they need to provide veterans critical mental health resources. 

The bill requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to provide a report to Congress showing responsibilities, workload, training and vacancy rates for VA suicide prevention coordinators.

“Far too many of our country’s heroes return home from service suffering from invisible wounds of war,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., ranking member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. “VA employees and suicide prevention professionals are our nation’s first line of defense when it comes to combatting veteran suicide. Our bill ensures a comprehensive approach to help connect veterans with the urgent, life-saving care they need, by identifying and addressing staffing needs for these vital frontline employees. I urge the President to sign this bill quickly into law, ensuring no veteran slips through the cracks.”  

“It is a tragedy for our country that so many brave veterans, who sacrifice on behalf of all of us, feel as though they have no one to turn to when dealing with the unseen wounds of war,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. “In order to stem the crisis of veteran suicide, it’s important that the people who help them are given the support they need. The VA must have the skilled professionals available who are trained to recognize the warning signs of a veteran in crisis and able to connect a veteran with the numerous resources available to them before it is too late."

The bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-N.Y.

"It is our responsibility to ensure every veteran has a place to turn when he or she needs help. Our bill is an important step to improve VA suicide prevention resources and ensure all veterans have access to the life-saving mental health care they need," Brindisi said in a previous statement.

About 20 veterans die by suicide daily, according to VA data, and the Veterans Affairs committees in Congress have made addressing it a top priority.

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 to veteranscrisisline.net.

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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