On May 31, the VA Secretary David J. Shulkin delivered his first “State of the VA” address highlighting the activity and direction of the Agency since his appointment in February. The address covered a wide range of topics, including health care access, community care and the Veterans Choice Program, accountability, and the quality of care provided to Veterans. In addition, he identified multiple Agency-wide priorities, such as reducing backlogs and getting more Veterans access to mental health care and suicide prevention programs. While all of the priorities mentioned are important, I am writing to you today with a focus on suicide prevention. Suicide among Veterans is a sad and heartbreaking reality that occurs in every state, county, city and town across the country. Recent research suggests that 20 Veterans die by suicide each day, of which six were users of VA services. This information is important as it shows that Veterans who actively engage in services provided by VA are less likely to commit suicide than those who are not.
One suicide is one too many. The VA and our partners, communities, families, and friends must do better on behalf of those who sacrificed so much for the freedoms we enjoy. It is simply not tolerable or right to accept the status quo. We must work harder together to expand available resources and access to vital mental health care services, create safety networks, educate and inform, eliminate bureaucracy and barriers, and intervene as appropriate to prevent suicides before they occur. This is not just the responsibility of our healthcare system or the VA at large – it is everyone’s responsibility.
We are very committed to suicide prevention. In addition to the large number of mental health professionals the we employ across the healthcare system, we have a suicide prevention team dedicated to facilitating prompt delivery of care and responsiveness, and monitoring Veterans identified at high risk of suicide through innovative new programs like Recovery Engagement and Coordination for Health – Veterans Enhanced Treatment (REACH VET), and providing ongoing staff training. Using a new predictive model, REACH VET analyzes existing data from Veterans’ health records to identify those at a statistically elevated risk for suicide, hospitalization, illness, or other adverse outcomes. This allows us to provide preemptive care and support, in some cases before a Veteran even has suicidal thoughts.
Another important resource for Veterans is the Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255 press 1). Veterans and those who know of a Veteran in crisis may call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net, or send a text message to 838255 to receive at no cost, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, even if they are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care.
Veteran suicide touches everyone – families, friends, communities, first responders, and those of us at VA. I invite you to join me and other Bay Pines leaders for a special Veterans town hall meeting on July 12, 2107 where we, as a community, will address ways we can improve our suicide prevention efforts. The event will take place in the JC Cobb room located on the first floor of the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center (building 100) from 4:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
In the meantime, if you know Veterans who needs our help, please help us help them by connecting them with us and letting them know that help is available 24/7. Whether through routine mental health appointments, visits to the emergency department, or telephone care through the Veterans Crisis Line, we do our very best to address any and all mental health needs, urgent and routine. Thank you for your continued partnership and commitment to the health and well-being of America’s heroes.
Suzanne M. Klinker is director of the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System. The organization is one of the nation’s leading VA healthcare systems, employing more than 4,100 medical professionals and support staff dedicated to providing the very best care to Veterans residing in southwest Florida. Bay Pines is the fifth busiest VA health care system in the country with an annual budget of nearly $800 million. It provides care for more than 108,000 Veterans in Charlotte, Collier, Desoto, Hardee, Highlands, Lee, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties.