Suicide & Mental Health
Providing quality care for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan requires an innovative approach that addresses both the physical and mental health of a veteran. We must continue to expand efforts to connect more veterans to mental health resources, beginning by recommitting ourselves to erase the stigma that prevents many veterans from seeking mental health care. We must also ensure that service members are thoroughly evaluated for injuries and properly diagnosed so that, as veterans, they are eligible to receive the care they need for the complex injuries, whether physical or mental, that they have sustained during their service.
The Defense Department reported that 295 active duty soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors committed suicide in 2010. Overall, the Department of Defense tracked 863 suicide attempts that year. Suspected and confirmed Army and Marine Corps suicides totaled 311 in 2011. Since the different services have different criteria for tracking suicide and do not all release data regularly, it is difficult to get a clear picture of the suicide epidemic in the military.
What is most troubling is our limited understanding of veteran suicide. The VA does not regularly release data on the number of veterans that commit suicide and there is almost no information about veteran suicide among the 47 percent of veterans of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom who never interact with the VA. Thirty-seven percent of IAVA members who were surveyed in January of 2012 knew a fellow veteran who committed suicide. It is fundamental that the government find a way to track all veteran suicides in order to properly address the issue. Recently the VA has announced that it will work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track veteran suicide in 48 states. However, it will take at least 2 years to aggregate that data.
Another critical step to understanding how we can stop veteran and service member suicide is to understand that suicide itself is not the whole issue. Suicide is the tragic conclusion of the failure to address the spectrum of challenges confronting returning veterans. And, they are not just mental health injuries; they include the challenges in finding employment, reintegrating to family and community life and many others. Fighting suicide is not just about preventing the act of suicide; it is providing a soft and productive landing for our veterans when they return home.
Two-thirds of IAVA members told us in a recent survey that they do not think troops and veterans are getting the mental health care they need. This claim is backed up by a recent VA IG report that exposed that, despite the VA’s claims of low wait times, only 49% of vets seeking mental health evaluation are seen w/in 14 days of a request. The other 51% are waiting an average 50 days for evaluation. This is unacceptable and IAVA is working to hold the VA accountable by mapping out where the VA is providing timely care and where they are leaving veterans behind.
Part of the problem is the serious shortage of military mental health professionals. For example, the Army Surgeon General recommends that there should be at least one behavioral health specialist deployed overseas for every 700 service members. The ratio in Operation Enduring Freedom was one provider for every 646 service members in 2009. Yet because service members were dispersed over a large geographical area, it is unclear whether each service member had access to the necessary support. Effective treatment is also scarce for veterans who have left the military. The VA has given mental health diagnoses to more than 385,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, or more than 52 percent of new veterans who visit the VA. But VA care is not always convenient and just over half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are eligible for its care are registered with the VA. Some veterans face significant hurdles in accessing proper care. Veterans in rural communities are especially hard hit and the availability and quality of mental health care for female veterans ranges widely. Many veterans are turning to community-based solutions, such as nonprofit and private sector care to address their needs. As care for these invisible injuries is developed, it must include a clear role for private and nonprofit leaders that are often the front lines of care.
Invisible injuries also can contribute to issues relating to mental health. When service members are near an exploding mortar or roadside bomb, the blast can damage their brains, often leaving an invisible injury, such as Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The vast majority of these invisible injuries are mild or moderate, but the injury is widespread: RAND’s 2008 study, found that 19 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans reported a probable TBI during deployment. And tens of thousands are coping with psychological and neurological problems other than TBI.
Military sexual trauma (MST) has also greatly impacted veterans and service members. There were many news stories about sexual assault in the military this year, including a probe of alleged sexual assault by military instructors at Lackland Air Force Base and the prosecution of four soldiers for male-on-male sexual assault as part of a hazing scandal. The Invisible War, a documentary about sexual assault in the military, won the best documentary award at the Sundance Film Festival. And these stories are supported by terrifying statistics from the Pentagon - there were 3,192 sexual assaults reported in the military in fiscal year 2011; the Pentagon estimates that there were actually 19,000 sexual assaults during that period of time. While major changes to the way the military handles cases of military sexual trauma (MST) came as a result of amendments in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, there is still much to do in the battle against MST.
Bill McNeely. Temple, Texas. Bill is a married 36-year-old Army veteran from Texas with a 7-year-old son. Currently, he is trying to obtain mental health care through the VA, which he admits has been a difficult system to navigate. After six months of unemployment, he recently landed a job as a car salesman in Fort Worth where he currently works 70 hours per week.
Mental Health ACCESS Act: This Act will direct the DOD to develop a comprehensive and standardized suicide prevention program for service members. It will also require the VA to conduct a comprehensive assessment of current mental health services to include partnering with the National Academy of Sciences. The bill also expands mental health services to members of the armed services that did not serve in theater but performed direct medical or mental health services to casualties originating within an area of declared hostilities and members of the armed services that engaged in combat with the enemy through a remote platform such as an unmanned aerial vehicle. Family members of a deployed member of the armed services will be eligible to receive mental health treatment from a non-VA provider.
Suicide specter follows troops into civilian life
The historic pace of troop suicides confounding the military through the war years is following servicemembers into civilian life, according to preliminary analyses of new veteran data.
"The community is so ravaged by suicides right now," says Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "I mean, I know guys who have had 10 (veterans who served) in their battalion who have committed suicide."
Latest VA estimate of veteran suicides comes from limited data
The Department of Veterans Affairs is making strides in tracking veteran suicide, but figuring out how many former service members take their own lives is still largely a guessing game. The latest analysis points to an average of 22 veteran suicides per day in 2010, according to a recently released VA study. That’s up from an estimated 18 each day in 2007.
Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the report supports what they’ve known anecdotally. “It underscores how we have a serious veteran suicide problem and it cuts across generations,” Paul Rieckhoff said.
22 veterans commit suicide each day: VA report
An estimated 22 veterans committed suicide in America each day in 2010, according to a report released Friday by the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs.
"The country should be outraged that we are allowing this tragedy to continue The trends are headed in the wrong direction,” Paul Rieckhoff said. “As veterans, we at IAVA understand the spectrum of challenges facing veterans transitioning home, including the struggle with invisible wounds. One thing is clear, we need more research and more collaboration.”
Suicides Outpacing War Deaths for Troops
The suicide rate among the nation’s active-duty military personnel has spiked this year, eclipsing the number of troops dying in battle and on pace to set a record annual high since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan more than a decade ago, the Pentagon said Friday.
Paul Rieckhoff attributed the rise in military suicides to too few qualified mental health professionals, aggravated by the stigma of receiving counseling and further compounded by family stresses and financial problems. The unemployment rate among military families is a particular problem, he said.
IAVA has helped thousands of veterans. Here are some of their stories:
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