As director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ VA Midwest Health Care Network, serving 440,000 veterans in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska, I thank the Star Tribune Editorial Board for shining a light on the tragic issue of veteran suicide (“The VA fails basic but vital mission,” Dec. 28). I want to share with you the ongoing efforts of our network to address this challenge and remind veterans, families and communities of the resources available to them through VA.
Suicide prevention is VA’s No. 1 clinical priority, but getting more veterans into care is one of our greatest challenges. An average of 20 veterans die by suicide each day. Of those 20, 14 have not received recent VA care. We are actively engaged in outreach to reach those 70 percent so that we can come alongside them and provide resources and support.
We host community meetings at which suicide prevention is addressed at least once per year at each of our 63 community-based outpatient clinics and eight health care systems. We also attend public gatherings including car, motorcycle, gun and boat shows, talking with veterans and sharing resources with them. Members of the suicide prevention team participated in more than 200 outreach and education events in communities throughout the most recent fiscal year.
We handed out more than 50,000 gun locks at these and other events. We develop and maintain relationships with veteran and military service organizations, faith communities, higher-learning institutions and law enforcement agencies, all to further suicide-prevention efforts. Our health care systems frequently use their social-media presence to share resources from our own #BeThere campaign, the Veterans Crisis Line and other organizations that seek to support those facing suicide.
We’ve provided S.A.V.E. training to thousands of employees, veterans, caregivers and community partners.
Tackling the issue of veteran suicide requires resources, and the VA has delivered. In the last fiscal year, we added 22 staff members to suicide-prevention teams across the network, increasing clinical and geographic coverage and support, including a dedicated suicide-prevention outreach and education specialist in each of our health care systems.
Capital-asset projects also reflect the priority placed on suicide prevention. For example, in Minneapolis, an $840,000 design contract to renovate our inpatient mental health floor based on best practices in suicide-prevention equipment and design components was awarded in September 2018, with an estimated $9 million award in fiscal 2020 for construction. Outpatient facilities at Minneapolis are being expanded by 6,000 square feet through a $5.6 million project that also began in September. In St. Cloud, a $10 million project to expand and construct outpatient mental health space is on track to be awarded this summer. We also continue to improve our telehealth services, allowing veterans in rural and urban areas to connect with their care teams via phone and video conference.
Suicide affects communities everywhere. Each year, nearly 45,000 people die by suicide, including 6,000 veterans. That’s why VA has adopted a public health approach to suicide prevention and why we invite everyone to #BeThere for veterans.
The employees of the VA Midwest Health Care Network are focused on providing the absolute best care possible to veterans in our region. We mourn the veterans lost to suicide and will continue to seek out those who we may be able to help.
Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a veteran in crisis, can call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1; send a text message to 838255; or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
Robert P. McDivitt is director of the VA Midwest Health Care Network.