WASHINGTON — Preventing suicide among servicemembers and veterans calls for comprehensive education and communication, the director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury said here today.
Testifying before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Army Col. Robert W. Saum said the Defense Department’s approach to suicide prevention is “multi-pronged,” and outreach to troops, veterans and their families is essential.
“[The department] has developed many resources and tools for servicemembers, veterans and families,” Saum said in his written statement. “However, we realize utilization of these resources is dependent upon prevention education and communication about their existence.”
Although psychological treatment and counseling are available for those on the brink of suicide, he said, intervention programs also are in place to address stressors that may lead to suicide. Such programs include counseling for substance abuse and for relationship, legal, work and financial issues, the colonel explained.
Saum stressed the importance of Defense Department collaboration with the Veterans Affairs Department and private-sector organizations. Saum’s organization serves as a central point of coordination for these groups, he said.
“Continued collaboration and coordination with [VA] and other federal, private and academic organizations is the key to ensuring we reach our military community in the most meaningful way,” he said. “We collaborate with the VA on many outreach initiatives to ensure that servicemembers, veterans and their families receive resources and access to services on a continued and consistent basis.
“[The center] works to identify best practices and disseminates practical resources to military communities,” he added.
Saum noted the center’s work with VA to coordinate resources and information with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1–800-273-TALK. One of the more recent improvements, he said, was developing an option for those concerned about a loved one or friend who may be suicidal.
Addressing the stigma issue also is important to the department’s outreach initiatives, he said.
“Stigma is a toxic threat to our servicemembers, veterans and families receiving the care they need,” Saum said. “We recognize that outreach is essential for combating stigma, encouraging help-seeking behaviors and promoting awareness of resources.”
Suicide among veterans and servicemembers has been on the rise for the past five years, a “deeply concerning” fact for the departments, Dr. Robert Jesse, principal deputy undersecretary for health with VA’s Veterans Health Administration, told the panel. At least 18 veteran deaths each day are attributed to suicide, he said, and about 50 percent of suicides among VA health care users are of patients diagnosed with mental illness.
“These are staggering numbers, and the data fails to reveal the true cost of suicide among veterans,” Jesse said in his submitted remarks. However, he added, VA is in the forefront of suicide prevention in the nation, noting several initiatives launched by the department.
VA has suicide prevention coordinators at each VA medical center, he said, and there has been significant expansion of services and work to alleviate the stigma of seeking help. Veterans Affairs suicide prevention coordinators helped to initiate more than 600 informational and outreach programs in February, he said, resulting in more than 1,500 veterans being added to VA’s “high risk list.” More than 90 percent of those veterans completed safety plans, he said.
Also, VA’s aggressive approach to advertising information through public service announcements and other means, such as billboards has helped, he said. Advertisements on buses and trains have resulted in a “significant increase” to calls to the hotline, he said, and social-network marketing is the next step.
Statistics show that veteran suicides are down, and VA and the Defense Department efforts are working, he said. About 71 percent of veterans returning from deployment and screened for mental health issues in 2009 contacted VA for services, he said.
Ultimately, he added, veterans who reach out to VA are more likely to need care and are found to be at a higher risk of suicide. Getting veterans to step forward is the key, he noted.
“VA has taken a number of steps to provide comprehensive suicide prevention services, and the data indicate our efforts are succeeding,” Jesse said. “But our mission will not be fully achieved until every veteran contemplating suicide is able to secure the services he or she needs.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)