Where Do Veterans Turn When They Have Nowhere to Go?

As we wrap up Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month, and as the VA health care problems linger on, it has become tragically apparent that more and more veterans are feeling like they have nowhere to go and can’t get the help they need. So, they choose to end their lives. In some cases, those suicides can be attributed to veterans being ignored by the VA.

There have been many accounts of veterans committing suicide outside of VA clinics, not only to end the pain and suffering that seemed endless, but also to give the VA one final furious message.

The VA’s inspector general has issued several scathing reports about the widespread mismanagement and lack of patient care at several clinics which contributed to a number of veteran suicides. Georgia, Missouri, Massachusetts, Virginia, Arizona, and others provided such poor health care that veterans felt they had no other options to end their physical and mental pain, and the situation is not new.

For more than a decade, the VA has attempted to minimize or hide the severity of the veteran suicide problem.

According to VA data, 22 veterans per day take their own lives, though the VA recognizes that there are significant limitations with their data, including several of the country’s most populated states not providing information for the report. Because of this, there are many people who believe that the number is actually higher than reported.

The rate of suicides among young, male veterans is up by 44 percent, and up 11 percent among women. Veterans commit suicide at a rate twice that of non-veterans, and they usually do so in a more violent manner. The VA says that suicide rates are not on the rise, but when it comes to the veracity of its data, the VA has proven to be untrustworthy in the past.

In some cases, veterans have used their suicide to send one final salient message to the VA. Only weeks ago, Kevin Keller,  a Navy vet who served in the 1980s, broke into a friend’s home, stole a gun, drove to a VA clinic in southwest Virginia, and committed suicide in the parking lot. Sadly, he is not the first and likely won’t be the last.

In 2010, Jesse Huff walked into an emergency room in Dayton, Ohio, suffering of chronic pain and depression only to be turned away. He returned a few hours later with a rifle and shot himself in the head, collapsing at the foot of a statue of a Civil War soldier.

In 2008, WWII vet Grover Cleveland Chapman shot himself in the parking lot outside of a Greenville, South Carolina, VA clinic after spending 60 years fighting the VA for benefits that he earned, only to be denied again and again.

As a result of the inspector general’s findings, several changes have been implemented in an effort to stem the number of veteran suicides, and improve health care in general. In Phoenix, where the health care scandal first broke, the following changes have been made and more of the same should be expected at clinics across the country;

  • The clinic has hired 12 additional psychiatrists as well as other mental health care professionals.
  • The suicide prevention program has been expanded to three case managers and is actively recruiting one more case manager and a coordinator.
  • The hospital emergency room is now staffed around the clock with a mental health care provider and has a psychiatrist on call.
  • A new building is in the planning stages that will handle mental health care offices as well as the creation of an automated system that will track patients who have more than three mental health care visits and assign them a treatment coordinator.

At the national level, the VA has created a number of programs that are meant to reduce the number of veteran suicides. In addition to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), the VA also has a text program that can be reached by dialing 838255 and an online chat at veteranscrisisline.net.

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