The following is an op-ed by VA Undersecretary of Health Dr. David Shulkin being distributed via wire service to news organizations around the country. It recently appeared in the Omaha World Herald.
The topic of suicide is a difficult conversation to have, but preventing Veteran suicide is a conversation that our experts at the Department of Veterans Affairs have every day. Our work is constant and our commitment to our Veterans in crisis is 24-hours-a-day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Last year, the Veterans Crisis Line dispatched emergency responders an average of 30 times daily and made 80,000 referrals to suicide prevention coordinators at VA medical centers. We know that we are saving thousands of lives. For us, this is no cause for celebration because it tells us that we continue to have too many Veterans struggling, and we have more work to do. Even one life lost is one life too many and it grieves us, especially our dedicated employees, many of whom are Veterans themselves, who spend late nights and holidays away from their own families to serve and save the lives of their fellow Veterans who are in need.
Several media outlets have recently chronicled the challenges of the Veterans Crisis Line, reporting that calls to the Veterans Crisis Line were rolling over and were being ignored or unanswered. That is simply untrue.
What is true is that VA, like other organizations that operate crisis or life lines, do rely on back up centers. But VA’s back up centers are not like call centers as many in the general public might understand it. Our backup centers, are operated by trained responders, and are used only when the VA crisis line is overwhelmed by calls. When back up is needed, VA utilizes the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. This crisis line network was established by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Mental Health Association of New York City and is independently evaluated by a federally funded investigation team.
We are currently strengthening the Veterans Crisis Line, doubling it in size, opening a new hub in Atlanta and using best-in-class business practices to improve capacity and our effectiveness as a life-saving resource. This will allow us to soon answer all calls to the crisis line with trained VA responders.
But more is needed, and we are expanding our suicide prevention efforts, providing greater access to services. In addition, we are working to ensure same day access for urgent mental health needs at every one of our 168 medical centers. We will reach this goal by the end of this year.
We are also continuing to hire more VA mental health professionals and are aggressively utilizing tele-mental health, predictive analytics, and other strategies where services are limited. We are actively exploring more effective treatments and searching for new approaches using innovative, technological solutions.
Despite these improvements and deploying assets of the country’s largest integrated medical and behavioral health care system, VA cannot fully address this issue alone. Of the 20 Veterans who died each day by suicide in 2014, 14 were not connected to VA for care in the past year. So we are enhancing our partnerships with community-based providers to broaden the network of mental health professionals and are researching new solutions.
A recent CDC report showed suicide is rising across all demographics and generations of Americans. This is sobering, but we believe our partnerships, research and new technologies will benefit not just Veterans but all Americans. As a nation, we must support each other and direct friends, family members, Veterans and colleagues to the right resources where hundreds of caring professionals are standing by to help.
What we fear most is that Veterans or their families who read hastily reported news stories become afraid to speak up because they believe their calls will go unanswered. That would yield devastating results.
To our employees who work day in and day out with veterans in crisis, we thank you for your service.
To our Veterans who feel they are at the brink with no place to turn, please know that we are here for you and will always be there to answer your call. If you are a Veteran or the loved one of a Veteran experiencing a crisis, VA provides universal access to 24/7 emergency care through our Emergency Departments and VA’s Veterans Crisis Line. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, text to 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net.
Dr. David J. Shulkin is VA’s Under Secretary for Health. As the Chief Executive of the Veterans Health Administration, he leads the nation’s largest integrated health care system with over 1,700 sites of care, serving 8.76 million Veterans each year. The Veterans Health Administration is also the nation’s largest provider of graduate medical education and major contributor of medical research. Dr. Shulkin is a board-certified internist, a fellow of the American College of Physicians. He received his medical degree from the Medical College of Pennsylvania, his internship at Yale University School of Medicine, and a residency and Fellowship in General Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Presbyterian Medical Center. He received advanced training in outcomes research and economics as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.