Just hours before a Capitol Hill hearing Monday on how to address the problem of veterans dying by suicide, a veteran took his own life outside the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center.
Lawmakers said that the incident was a painful reminder for all the effort and funding put into suicide prevention in recent years, progress on the issue has been frustratingly inconsistent.
“Two weeks ago, three other veterans committed suicide at VA facilities in five days,” House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said. “So far, we have seen seven this year.
“It’s clear we are not doing enough to support veterans in crisis.”
Both Democrats and Republicans in the House are pledging to try and fix that in coming months, launching a series of hearings and legislative pushes to address the lingering problem of veterans suicide.
Takano and committee ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said they are optimistic they can advance bipartisan legislation on the issue, to include more research and monitoring within VA facilities.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a press conference ahead of the hearing to highlight the new congressional focus, called the issue an “uncomfortable, urgent crisis” and promised to work closely with Republican Party leaders on finding answers.
Preventing suicides has been VA’s top clinical priority for the past two years, and lawmakers noting that spending on support programs have more than doubled since 2005. Despite that, the rate of suicide among veterans has remained steady over the last 10 years, with about 20 a day across the country.
Veterans Affairs officials have noted the uptick in veterans who have died by suicide in public spaces at department facilities — 25 in the last 18 months — does not reflect a statistically significant increase in the overall suicide problem.
“But all of us feel these losses,” said Dr. Richard Stone, acting head of the Veterans Health Administration.
Lawmakers and veterans groups expressed frustration at the department, not for their effort, but for their results.
“We must confront an uncomfortable and deeply troubling truth: VA’s current efforts and approaches to suicide prevention and mental health are not working,” said Joe Chennelly, executive director at AMVETS. “How do we know this? In the simplest of terms, the suicide numbers aren’t decreasing.”
Officials at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America lamented that “we are far from a long-term sustainable solution to address veterans suicide.”
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump announced a year-long task force review of the veterans suicide issue, engaging experts across multiple departments to find new ideas. The House effort echoes that move, but lawmakers hope to bring legislative force along with that.
Among the ideas being discussed at other committee hearings later this week: expanding eligibility for health care services, expanding research on suicides, mandating more reporting by VA on suicides on campuses and increased monitoring of prescriptions by VA doctors.
Shelli Avenevoli, deputy director at the National Institutes of Mental Health, said in recent years officials have seen successes with a host of new approaches, such as universal mental health screening for all patients and detailed follow-up plans for suicidal patients. Those ideas may also be included in coming House plans.
Takano, whose uncle — a Vietnam veteran — died by suicide decades ago, said lawmakers are open to any innovations that could help with the issue.
VA officials said they are open to the conversation, calling challenge a national problem, not just one shouldered by their staff.
They did not disclose any additional details about the Cleveland suicide, which occurred early Monday morning outside of the campus’ emergency room. Stone noted that more than 240 suicides have been prevented on the grounds of VA facilities since the start of 2017, but the idea that 25 other deaths happened “with help just a few feet away is deeply troubling.”
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 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.