Veterans’ suicide issue a priority for Trump administration, VA secretary says

About 20 U.S. military veterans take their lives every day, and the suicide rate among young veterans has climbed sharply in recent years, prompting the federal government to push for a “national conversation” about the issue.

Robert Wilkie, secretary of veterans affairs for the Trump administration, told the American Legion National Convention in Indianapolis on Wednesday that the issue needs urgent attention.

“The practice of my father’s generation—not to talk about these problems—is giving way to an open discussion among our service members, who have learned the importance of looking out for one another,” he said.

Veterans accounted for 14% of all U.S. suicides in 2016, even though they make up only 8% of the population, according to figures released last fall from the VA’s National Suicide Data Report.

Among veterans between the ages of 18 and 34 the suicide rate jumped to 45 per 100,000 in 2016 from 40.4 in 2015. The department plans to release updated figures next month.

The overall number of suicides among U.S. military veterans fell slightly, to 6,079 in 2016, from 6,281 in 2015. There are about 20 million veterans in the U.S., including more than 500,000 in Indiana.

About half of military veterans who commit suicide are over 50 years old, and most of those are from the Vietnam generation.

In an interview with IBJ, Wilkie said he helped start mental-health awareness training in his previous role as under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness from November 2017 to July 2018. The goal was to raise the issue and invite military personnel to seek mental health counseling if they felt they needed it.

“In my father’s day, it would have been an anathema, if you had shown evidence of concern or anxiety, that was a one-way ticket out of the military,” he said. “We’re training folks now to not only come forward but to see those signs in others.”

But some of the suicides are happening right on VA property. Earlier this month, a veteran committed suicide in the parking lot of a VA hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. According to military newspaper Stars and Stripes, multiple veterans have died by suicide at VA facilities this year, including three in five days in April.

Nineteen suicides occurred on VA property between October 2017 and November 2018, according to data obtained by the Washington Post.

Wilkie said the issue is challenging to deal with. Of the 20 veterans who commit suicide each day, the VA sees only six.

“Here’s what the VA is doing for the six who use VA care,” he told the convention. “Any veteran who walks through our doors for health care is now screened for mental health. We also provide same-day mental health care.”

He added that the federal government needs to build partnerships with people in the community who can deliver aid directly to veterans. A piece of legislation in Congress, for example, would let the VA direct grant funding to private groups and community organizations that can help.

“President Trump supports this common-sense way of delivering care to our veterans, and we hope you can work with us to get it through Congress,” Wilkie told the convention.

Wilkie said he wants to get more people in and out of government discussing the problem, and raising awareness.

“What I want to do is take and start a national conversation on mental health, and flow from that, addiction and homelessness, because it’s a continuum there,” he told IBJ.

He said the conversation is in its early stages. “We’re not even in the Sputnik stage in this country when it comes to mental health,” he said, referring to the early days of the space program.

To push the issue to the forefront, he is serving as head of a task force that includes officials from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, Health and Human Services and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“Most people understand at some level what soldiers go through, even though they may not have experienced it,” Wilkie said. “And if we can provide some sort of way forward, then we will be performing a great public service.”

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