WASHINGTON — Ending veterans suicide will require more mental health professionals, more research into prevention options, and more public awareness from all of America, the secretary of Veterans Affairs warned lawmakers on Wednesday.
“Every day I think about the number of Americans who are dying because we aren’t addressing the problem well enough,” David Shulkin said during a suicide prevention hearing before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
VA officials estimate 20 veterans a day nationwide commit suicide.
Of that figure, 14 are individuals with no regular connection to VA health services. The VA secretary noted that problem is even more pronounced among female veterans: In the last 15 years, suicide rates among those who used VA services dropped nearly 3 percent, but rose nearly 82 percent among those not in the system.
That’s the impetus behind the latest VA suicide prevention campaign, #BeThere, being rolled out in weeks to come. Ads featuring actor Tom Hanks encouraging all Americans to be available to veterans in need will air on a variety of platforms, with links to existing VA resources.
But Shulkin acknowledged that’s just one more step in an ongoing, complicated effort to provide better mental health care to the 21-million-plus veterans across the country.
“We have to figure out a way to hire more mental health professionals for VA,” he said. “Right now, we’re not getting enough.”
Earlier this year department officials announced plans to hire 1,000 new mental health specialists in 2017. As of Sept. 1, 649 had been hired, a pace that Shulkin said barely keeps them on pace with departures over the last several months.
“We are not succeeding,” he said.
Speeding up that process will require new hiring authorities, an idea lawmakers said they would be willing to entertain. He also criticized cuts in recent years to VA’s recruiting and retention budget, an account Shulkin said was already underfunded.
The department has faced criticism in recent months for thousands of vacant positions, and lawmakers included new hiring rules for a host of management posts in recent legislation.
Before Shulkin’s testimony, mental health experts spoke about recent advances in suicide prevention research and offered concerns that VA is not keeping up with the latest best practices uncovered by that work.
Shulkin said VA published more than 75 papers on suicide causes and prevention in the last year, but are still looking at avenues for additional information on combatting the problem.
He also praised congressional focus on the issue. September is national suicide prevention month, and before the Senate hearing the VA secretary signed a suicide prevention declaration with committee chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and ranking member Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
All three called the move an effort to bring more attention to the issue. Shulkin has repeatedly labeled the issue his top clinical priority as secretary.
But he has also been quick to note that suicide is “an American public health crisis” that will require more than just VA research and attention to overcome.
The department’s Veterans Crisis Line operates around the clock for veterans in need of emergency intervention.
To contact the Veteran Crisis Line, callers can dial 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.