The Veterans Administration's suicide-prevention campaign will be meaningless unless veterans actually use it, experts told a House subcommittee hearing on Friday.
Panelists and lawmakers praised the VA's moves to improve suicide prevention services, which include setting up a crisis helpline, placing suicide coordinators at medical centers, and integrating mental health services with primary care. But the VA needs to do a better job at engaging local communities and providing the services veterans truly need, panelists testified.
“No matter how great our programs and our services are, if they do not help those in need, they do no good at all,” said Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., in opening remarks before the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Health.
Eighteen veterans commit suicide each day, according to VA estimates; an active service member or reservist took his or her own life every 36 hours between 2005 and 2010, according to the Department of Defense. Panelists noted that the data remains hazy—not least because suicides often go unrecorded.
Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., asked a panelist how he would rate the VA’s success at preventing suicides on a scale of 1 to 10.
“Four,” said Thomas Berger, head of the Veterans Health Council of Vietnam Veterans of America.
“That’s a fail,” Stearns said. “Your rating it a four suggests that the VA is not providing the services, even if we get the veterans there.”
VA officials cited a decrease in the amount of suicide attempts for veterans under VA care, particularly younger veterans. But the numbers remain “tragic,” said Janet Kemp, the VA's national mental health director for suicide prevention.
“Veterans are still dying by suicide, which means we have more work to do. As long as one veteran dies by suicide who is receiving care in the VA, I haven’t done my job,” Kemp said.
Wait times for basic appointments remain unreasonably long, Berger said. “If you have someone with serious combat trauma who needs help, you can’t wait six weeks for an appointment,” he argued.
The VA needs to make it easier to access care, and to better engage not only veterans but entire communities, said Tom Tarantino, senior legislative associate with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“Suicide is the tragic conclusion of the failure to address the spectrum of challenges that veterans face,” Tarantino said, including “finding employment, reintegrating with families and communities, and dealing with health care benefits and bureaucracies that are, frankly, almost as traumatic as the injuries themselves.”
The VA could better partner with city and state governments, and use Facebook and mobile technologies to improve its outreach, Tarantino said. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., suggested that cell phones could be a particularly useful way to engage with younger veterans.
There are 22.7 million veterans in America, according to VA statistics. As troops come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, that number will grow.