Over the span of five days last week, three U.S. military veterans committed suicide on Veterans Affairs properties in Texas and Georgia, sparking calls that not enough is being done to confront the enduring problem of elevated suicide rates among veterans.
The spate of incidents starkly illustrates the problems U.S. military and mental health officials have encountered in addressing the epidemic of veteran suicides, despite years of effort and a new initiative announced last month by President Trump to combat the issue.
While suicide rates among veterans decreased from 2015 to 2016, on average about 20 current or former service members take their lives each day, according to the most recent Department of Veterans Affairs data. Of those 20, six — nearly a third — have been in VA health care.
The family of one man who took his life last week, 29-year-old Gary Pressley, said the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin, Georgia, could have helped.
“I just wish they would have found him and stopped him, locked him up, did whatever they had to do, because I need my son here,” Machelle Wilson, Mr. Pressley’s mother, told local news station WMAZ. Ms. Wilson said her son was struggling to receive care for pain and mental health.
Mr. Pressley reportedly told his girlfriend of his plans to take his life in the medical center’s parking lot “so they could find his body, so somebody can pay attention to what’s happening, so other vets do not have to go through this.”
A VA spokesperson told The Washington Times that “any time an unexpected death occurs at a VA facility, the department conducts a comprehensive review of the case to see if changes in policies and procedures are warranted.”
One day later, 68-year-old veteran Olen Hancock took his life outside of the Atlanta VA Medical Center just after being seen pacing in the facility’s lobby, according to WSB-TV.
And on April 9, an unidentified man shot and killed himself in the lobby of the Austin, Texas Veterans Affairs Clinic. According to local news reports, there were hundreds of people inside the waiting room when the man pulled the trigger.
According to the White House, Mr. Trump’s new initiative seeks a “comprehensive public health roadmap” to target the veteran suicide problem, and will include the heads of the departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security. The White House did not return a request for comment on this issue.
Since 2017, when the department began keeping track of suicides at VA facilities, there have been over 260 suicide attempts. According to agency officials, 240 of the attempts have been interrupted.
After a 2018 study of nine VA emergency rooms found a 45% decrease of suicidal behavior among patients who received follow-up outreach after suicide threats, all department medical centers have established a “Safety Planning Intervention Program,” the VA spokesperson said.
The VA’s total budget for suicide prevention is approximately $47.5 million for FY2019, and the agency plans to spend $20 million of that budget on outreach.
“[Veterans Affairs] is continually looking for ways to refine and improve its suicide prevention program, and this study is part of those efforts,” the spokesperson said.
But some lawmakers have expressed concern that the existing steps are not enough.
A spokesperson for House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano said cutting suicide rates among veterans is the California Democrat’s “No. 1 priority.”
Rep. Max Rose, an Army combat veteran and member of Mr. Takano’s committee, on Thursday introduced a bill specifically targeted to veterans who stage their suicides at VA facilities.
The New York Democrat’s bill would require the VA to provide notice to Congress of the suicide or attempted suicide and the name of the facility and location where the suicide occurred within seven days, along with extensive details on the veteran’s interactions with the government health system.
“It’s imperative that we receive not only basic information from the VA, but substantive data on this rising trend of veterans committing suicide at VA facilities,” Mr. Rose said in a statement introducing his bill.
Any veteran, family member or friend concerned about a veteran’s mental health can contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. Trained professionals are also available to chat at www.veteranscrisisline.net.
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