With One Suicide on Average Each Day, DoD, VA Leaders Struggle for Better Solutions

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WASHINGTON — With military suicides averaging nearly one a day this year, DoD and VA leaders are grappling to develop better ways to identify servicemembers and veterans who are at risk for taking their own lives and determine what prompts them to take such desperate action.

“Trying to find out more about these very difficult, complex issues is not easy, but we’ve got to do everything we can to continue the research effort into learning more about this difficult issue,” said Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta calls the suicide issue a “frustrating challenge.”

One effort, discussed at a recent conference about the issue, is creating a data repository that will help mental-health experts better analyze suicides and suicide attempts “to spot trends and to get ahead of that,” Panetta said. “Likewise, we are improving program evaluation so that we can better focus our resources on those programs that are proven to be effective.”

He cautioned, however, there are no “easy answers” or “quick fixes.”

Panetta and a host of others government officials spoke this summer at the fourth annual DoD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference. This year’s conference was titled “Back to Basics: Enhancing the Well-Being of our Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families.”

“This issue, suicides, is perhaps the most frustrating challenge that I have come across since becoming secretary of defense last year,” Panetta noted.   “Despite the increased efforts, the increased attention, the trends continue to move in a troubling and tragic direction.”

More Suicides than Traffic Fatalities

The annual conference came weeks after news reports on Pentagon statistics indicating that 154 military servicemembers committed suicide during the first 155 days of this year, through June 3.

Also , an article in the May issue of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center’s Medical Surveillance Monthly Report reported that, from 2005 to 2011, suicides have overtaken transportation accidents as the second-leading cause of deaths in servicemembers, after war-related injuries.

The military services are reaching out to troubled servicemembers, offering them help.

“War-related injuries have been the leading cause of deaths of active servicemembers in each year since 2004,” the article stated. “Excluding war-related deaths, accidents and suicides account for approximately two-thirds of all deaths of active-military members. Since 2005, the proportion of servicemembers’ deaths due to suicide has been increasing; and in 2010 and 2011, there were more deaths from suicide than from transportation accidents.”

In June, members of a Senate committee raised concerns about the high suicide rate. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), told Panetta at a hearing that “the Pentagon and the VA are losing the battle on mental- and behavioral-health conditions” and that this is resulting in “such extreme things as suicide.”

In early July, Murray, the chair of the Senate Committee of Veterans’ Affairs, announced the introduction of new legislation, “The Mental Health ACCESS Act of 2012,” to compel more action to prevent suicides. The bill would:

  • Require DoD to create a comprehensive, standardized suicide prevention program;
  • Expand eligibility for a variety of VA mental-health services to family members;
  • Strengthen oversight of DoD mental healthcare and the Integrated Disability Evaluation System;
  • Improve training and education for  healthcare providers;
  • Create more peer-to-peer counseling opportunities; and
  • Require VA to establish accurate and reliable measures for mental-health services.

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