In a sometimes emotionally charged Congressional hearing on Dec. 2, participants agreed that better outreach by both the Department of Veterans Affairs and fellow veterans is needed to stop the alarming number of suicides among those who have served in the military.
Eight panelists, including four from veterans service organizations, testified before the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health. Among the experts addressing the session on “Understanding and Preventing Veteran Suicide” was Margaret C. Harrell of the Center for a New American Security. According to her organization, veterans took their own lives at a rate of one every 36 hours from 2005 to 2010. VA puts the figure even higher: one veteran suicide every 80 minutes, with one-third of the victims under VA care.
VA was represented at the hearing by Dr. Jan Kemp, RN, Ph.D. She is the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) national suicide prevention coordinator. With obvious distress, she admitted that although VA mental health care is making strides in suicide prevention, “we are not meeting our own goals. The bottom line is that veterans are still dying. We have to do better. And, we will – I promise.”
Kemp then lauded VSOs for their concern with and work toward suicide prevention, emphasizing the need for better outreach to at-risk veterans by VHA and – critically – through vet-to-vet dialogues.
Subcommittee chair Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., a registered nurse herself, commended Kemp for “speaking from the heart. We get so tired of people just sticking to their scripts.”
In the end, committee members agreed that VA is working diligently on the issue of suicide, but in Kemp’s words, “much is left to be done” in gathering useful data on the issue and, most importantly, providing the resources to assure preventive mental health care for those suffering the “invisible wounds” of war.