Billings Gazette: Tester calls attention to veteran suicides

by Tom Lutey

The federal government is falling short on addressing veteran suicide and mental health issues, U.S. Senators indicated at a hearing Wednesday.

Long wait times for care and high-profile failure to spot a suicide risk dominated the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing. One lawmaker said suicidal veterans in her state couldn’t get in to see a mental health professional for at least 60 days.

“This is real frustrating for me to say but we got to do better. We just got to do better,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat speaking to Dr. Matthew Miller, director for suicide prevention at the Veterans Health Administration. “This isn’t saleable. It’s keeping people out of our military. We need more people in our military. It’s ruining lives, and families. And so, we all need to work together. Make sure this happens. Please know that this committee would probably give you anything you ask for when it comes to mental health. We just need to make sure that what you’re asking for, sometimes, will make a difference.”

The hearing, livestreamed, came weeks an Inspector General’s report about a Texas veteran whose risk for suicide was misdiagnosed by a Veterans Crisis Line worker after an 80-minute text conversation in which the veteran indicated he was going to hang himself and followed through less than an hour after disengaging. The crisis worker didn’t recognize the risk, didn’t have a prevention plan, and didn’t save the text messages for follow up.

The hotline is supposed to connect suicidal veterans with professional help. In 2020, the service handled about 52,500 calls per month, 6,652 chats and 2,924 text conversations according to an earlier Office of Inspector General Report.

There aren’t any easy answers, Miller told lawmakers. The doctor cited several pieces of legislation aimed at suicide prevention and mental healthcare, including the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act. Hannon was a decorated veteran who committed suicide in 2018.

Tester opened the hearing by offering condolences to the Montana VA, which recently lost an employee and veteran to suicide.

Other senators focused on issues still not well recognized by VA professionals, particularly the availability of mental healthcare offered to female veterans sexually assaulted while serving.

“The fact that nearly a third of women veterans experienced sexual assault or harassment while serving our country in uniform is really staggering. And unsurprisingly, we know that military sexual trauma is a significant cause of mental health issues for these women,” said Sen. Patty Murry, a Washington Democrat. ”In fact, women who are survivors of military sexual trauma are nine times more likely to develop PTSD than other woman veterans. There was a 2018 VHA directive that requires all VA facilities to have a designated coordinator to help veterans who are survivors of military sexual trauma access mental health care and other resources. But in my home state of Washington, the Puget Sound VA which treats by the way more than 65,000 veterans does not have a full-time person in this position, which seems notable for a facility of that size and a position that’s so important.”

Miller recognized the increased risk of suicide for female veterans sexually assaulted. He recognized the policy requiring designated coordinated for helping veterans with sexual trauma but didn’t have an answer for when those positions required for the last five years would be fully filled.

Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn said she sampled the wait times at VA facilities in her state for veterans seeking care for suicide prevention. The wait times ranged from seven days in Nashville to 96 days in Campbell County.

Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, told Veterans Affairs officials that they needed to refer veterans to private care when the government couldn’t accommodate them.

“Particularly in behavioral health crisis situations, days and minutes matter,” Tillis said. “And I think that anyone who is in the VA who is guilty of saying, ‘Well, you know, we just need to keep them in the mix (a) few more days, few more weeks. First, you’re playing potentially with somebody’s life. The person who’s saying that is running counter to what I’ve heard from everybody in the VA, ‘get the care, quality care as quickly as possible, in the VA, if possible, but in the community when necessary.’”