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House Panel Seeks Better Interventions To Prevent Veteran Suicides

November 17, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
(Image from a suicide prevention video by Staff Sgt. Michael Eaddy, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (AA) Public Affairs)

WASHINGTON — The heartrending subject of veteran suicide was again front and center on Capitol Hill Wednesday as a House panel heard one heartbreaking story after another about young people who placed themselves in harm’s way for their country only to return home and take their own lives.

Help for post traumatic stress disorder is often available, but pride or misinformation can prevent veterans from accessing it, military personnel and mental health professionals told a congressional panel.

“There’s a disconnect,” said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, D-Mass., chairman of the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on national security.

The statistics he cited described a sobering picture of what war does to human beings.

Since 2001, an average of 6,300 service members or veterans commit suicide each year. The total number of veteran suicides is about three times higher than all the American war dead from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

About one in six suicides in the United States is a veteran, or about 20 per day.

“You are not alone,” Lynch said in his message for veterans. “If you’re struggling or you need help, please reach out.”

Outreach was one of the biggest problems for many members of the military, according to witnesses at the hearing.

Retired Brigadier General Jack Hammond said the transition to civilian life made service members most vulnerable to depression.

While they were deployed, they were instilled with a sense of identity and purpose as they played an important role in protecting their country and the world from terrorism, he said.

Many return home to unfulfilling jobs for which they often are untrained and unprepared.

“Suddenly they’re unemployed, underemployed, living with their parents and not feeling so great,” he said.

Many will gain weight, self-medicate and fall into a cycle of hopelessness leading to suicide, said Hammond, who oversaw security, life support and construction at military bases in Afghanistan.

Mental health assistance is available for them through the Veterans Administration but admitting weakness for people who were trained to be strong can be a separate struggle, he said. Others are concerned a record of mental health treatment might interfere with their careers.

“Deep down they knew they had these injuries, they just didn’t want to say it out loud,” Hammond said.

His comments coincided with a Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday that suggested methods for the Defense Department and Veterans Administration to identify veterans most at risk for suicide.

The report acknowledged a sincere effort when it said, “The Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs have multiple efforts underway to help prevent suicide among military service members and veterans.”

It suggested ways for suicide prevention programs to be assessed for effectiveness, to set standards for better determining the staffing needs of the programs and to more accurately count the number of suicides at Veterans Administration facilities.

Alyssa M. Hundrup, the Government Accountability Office’s director of health care, suggested nontraditional mental health counseling, such as through “telehealth” video conferencing and private settings where veterans would feel less shame.

“I think … access to mental health care is going to be very important.”

Rep. Glenn S. Grothman, R-Wis., addressed the shame veterans might feel when he said, “It’s vital to remind service members, particularly the ones who served in Afghanistan, that they served with honor.”

He also suggested better training for active duty military personnel for their transition to civilian life.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced a plan for reducing veteran suicides that repeats some of the Government Accountability Office’s suggestions.

It also recommends improvements to crisis care and support for veterans to find employment or to deal with substance abuse.

Tom can be reached at [email protected]

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