New figures released this week by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) show a dramatic increase in suicide among veterans aged 18 to 29 years old, due in large part to multiple deployments and the overall stress of combat.
Between 2005 and 2007, the VA said it saw a 26 percent increase in suicides, mostly among veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The data was compiled by the VA using information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics from 16 states.
These latest figures come on the heels of a major investigative report Truthout published last month that detailed the Obama administration’s struggle to tackle the suicide epidemic as well as a mental health crisis plaguing the military and a massive benefits claims backlog.
In that report, Ira Katz, the deputy chief patient care services officer for the Veterans Health Administration, who last year was exposed as trying to cover-up an increase in veterans suicides and attempted suicides, told Truthout that between 2001 and 2007 there was a 10 to 15 percent decrease in suicides among veterans who received treatment from the VA.
However, Katz did not provide Truthout with any hard data to back up his assertions. But the VA’s statistics released Monday show that veterans who were under the VA’s care were in fact less likely to commit suicide than those who weren’t.
Still, Paul Sullivan, executive director of advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense (VCS), whose organization has been instrumental in exposing the suicide epidemic and the mental health care crisis within the military, challenged the veracity of Katz’s statements.
“That’s his job,” Sullivan said. “To lie. [House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob] Filner and VCS has said [Katz] is not serving veterans well. The increase in suicides took place while he was in charge. If [Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric] Shinseki believes in accountability than Mr. Katz needs to pound sand.”
Last month, at a briefing for reporters, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, said although the Army has hired 900 mental health care professionals over the past two years, “I see a shortage today of somewhere in the vicinity of, I would argue, 800 – 750 to 800.”
“The reason why I’m having a problem with mental health care providers is, United States society as a whole is having a problem with mental health care providers,” Chiarelli said.
Sullivan said the record number of suicides is indicative of a “failure of leadership in the military to implement solutions,” such as implementing a “robust anti-stigma campaign that encourages our troops to seek mental health care and discourage officers from discriminating against soldiers who seek care.”
At a Department of Defense/VA Suicide Prevention conference in Washington, Shinseki conceded his agency needed to do a better job of understanding what causes each suicide. The weeklong conference began Monday and goes through January 14 to give department health care professionals insight to each organization’s programs and best practices in suicide prevention. About 100 veterans who’ve experienced suicidal thoughts are expected to share their stories of survival.
Shinseki said he would like to see stricter protocols put into place at VA facilities concerning how to handle potentially suicidal veterans.
“Throughout my years and service in uniform, suicides were one of the most frustrating leadership challenges I faced,” Shinseki said. “We must build and maintain a strong support system, one in which everyone has a role, where we collectively assume ownership of the problem.”
Shinseki estimated that of 30,000 suicides each year in the US, about 20 percent are done by veterans.
Reasons that veterans commit suicide vary, said Amy Fairweather, director of the Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, a clearinghouse of more than 45 agencies serving a myriad of needs associated with deployment in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“Survivor guilt comes up often and the feeling of not belonging anywhere” also does, she said. Also, she said, they may feel “like they’re a fish out of water and are isolated.”
Many veterans’ fear of being redeployed exacerbates their mental health concerns and sometimes leads to suicidal thoughts, Fairweather said. It’s “feeling that utter hopelessness and wanting to escape,” she said. Some veterans drink themselves into a stupor so that they don’t have to face their nightmares, so they want to escape, and “the ultimate escape is suicide,” Fairweather said.
Since the Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans concerns mostly veterans under 30 years old, Fairweather said she mostly hears about that age group’s suicidal thoughts, but she said she also knows older veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries who also have suicidal thoughts.
“Most of the people we see are under 30, but that’s not to say that veterans of the Iraq-Afghanistan era who are older are not suicidal, and I certainly know several of them who are more senior and officers and older, but there’s definitely fewer of them demographically in the military.”
Feeling a sense of isolation, depression, moodswings and alienation all are symptoms of PTSD and can lead to one’s having suicidal thoughts, Fairweather said.
Also, because some veterans consider mental health issues to be a stigma, that increases chances that veterans may experience suicidal thoughts, Fairweather said.
She said that mental health concerns, including suicidal thoughts, are sometimes treated as a disciplinary matter rather than a serious matter in the military, and she recommended that if troops are under a leader’s care, the leader should aim to keep troops’ morale up.
“Given the stigma around taking care of mental health in the military and in our culture but especially in the military, I know the military and VA have made great strides,” Fairweather said, “but there are still barriers that it’s going to take some time to pull down and to build up so that people can see a mental health provider within a reasonable amount of time and have enough time with that provider.”
The VA has “done some things like put up a suicide hotline” and “hired more people, but it take time to get people on board” to tend to mental health issues, Fairweather added.
The VA has a Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which is available around the clock, seven days a week. Four hundred people are dedicated solely to suicide prevention research and counseling in the VA.
Also, veterans (and family members and friends) may anonymously chat with trained VA counselors via www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
If the chats are determined to be a crisis, the counselor can transfer the veteran to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, where further counseling and referral services are provided and crisis intervention steps can be taken.
But Sullivan said additional steps need to be taken immediately.
“The Obama administration is still relying on advice and suggestions from anti-veteran political holdovers from the Bush administration,” Sullivan said. “Until the military hires more doctors and incompetent government employees are fired the suicide epidemic will continue to worsen.”