WASHINGTON -- About 18 veterans commit suicide every day, according to a statistic revealed by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, during a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday. It’s a reality 27-year-old Daniel Hanson understands well.
A Marine Corps veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Hanson was deployed in February 2004; shortly thereafter, a fellow Marine killed himself with a bullet to the head.
“It was hard knowing that you had just talked to someone the day before, and now you were saluting an empty pair of combat boots, an upside down M-16 and a pair of dog tags,” said Hanson, who has since lost several military friends and family members to suicide.
The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs met with veterans and VA health officials Wednesday to discuss ways to reduce suicide rates among veterans.Of the 30,000 suicides each year in America, about one in five are committed by veterans, and those numbers are on the rise: the suicide rate among 18- to 29-year-old male veterans increased by 26 percent between 2005 and 2007, according to statistics released by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
“When we send men and women into battle, we provide them with equipment to protect them from physical dangers,” said Akaka, chairman of the committee. “Too often, we do not provide sufficient protection and preparation for the equally serious mental dangers they will face.”
Since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mental health has been a growing military concern. Given the duration of conflict and the number of redeployments, more veterans are suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.The VA has taken steps to address these concerns.
President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget provides $5.2 billion for VA mental health services, up from $4.8 billion in 2010 and $2.0 billion in 2001. And while veteran suicide rates are generally rising, the rate of suicides for veterans in VA health care services has decreased by 13 percent between 2001 and 2007.These statistics, however, do not include veterans who have not sought treatment.
“Today we have over 23 million living veterans, but the VA sees only a quarter of them in its health care programs, and even a smaller fraction in its mental health services,” said Clarence Jordan, a 15-year Navy veteran and a national director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
When servicemen come home, they are immediately screened for mental health concerns, undergoing re-evaluations throughout the next several months. Yet veterans at the hearing said the screening procedure does not adequately encourage them to seek help.
“Our post-deployment health assessment was in a large setting,” Hanson said. “They told us to raise our hands if we had any problems, but nobody is going to want to raise their hand like that.”
Experts at the hearing said the VA should employ alternative techniques to reach out to veterans.“For many of our veterans, the notion of illness and disorder are synonymous with personal failure and weakness,” said M. David Rudd, scientific director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah. “This is contrary to the very core of military training …We need to move away from the traditional language of pathology and talk about issues of optimal performance and resilience.”
They urged the VA to better integrate with communities, extending partnerships to private organizations, non-profit organizations and universities.
“An estimated 500,000 veterans will make their way to college and university campuses over the next decade,” Rudd said. “The VA will need to go to where the veterans are in order to reach the 70 percent hesitant to seek care.”
To address this need, the VA has created 230 Vet Centers nationwide which provide holistic health services and community outreach. The centers are staffed by psychologists, nurses and social workers, many of whom are also veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. By the end of this fiscal year, the VA hopes to have 300 Vet Centers and about 70 new family care therapists stationed at them.Additionally, the VA participates in the national suicide hotline program, and it reported that 60,000 veterans have called since the program was established.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that the suicide prevention hotline is one of the most successful programs we have ever implemented,” said Dr. Gerald Cross, the principal deputy undersecretary for health in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Nevertheless, veterans at the hearing said VA mental health services lack a sense of personal connection.
“I felt like I was just another number going through the revolving door of head doctors that had to talk to me,” said Hanson, who also struggled with depression and substance abuse when he came home.
Hanson joined other experts in urging the VA to provide longer-term care. Dissatisfied with his treatment at VA medical centers, Hanson self-medicated with alcohol until finding help at Minnesota Teen Challenge, a faith-based addiction and drug counseling center which offers a 13 to 15-month inpatient program.
“There are a lot of veterans who walk around in constant pain and depression because they have never overcome the root of their problems,” he said, adding that the VA program in his area only lasts about 90 days. “A program that lasts for a year or more is much more likely to help a person not just cope with their problems, but get rid of them altogether.”
Though the VA has taken strides to improve mental health services and reduce the veteran suicide rate, speakers at the hearing recognized that much work remains.
“It is never possible to prevent all suicides in all cases,” Akaka said. “But that must not stop us from trying.”