An alarming new Government Accountability Office report has detailed how the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is falling short on a vital mission — preventing suicides among those vets struggling on the home front after serving their country.
The report, released last month, is especially frustrating because it shows the VA had the necessary funding to promote its suicide-prevention and mental health resources. But only $57,000 of the $6.2 million designated in 2018 for paid media suicide-prevention campaigns — which would have included outreach on social media, for example — had been spent through September.
“Fifty-seven thousand dollars? There are cars on the road that cost more than that,” said Melissa Bryant, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
“There is no justification for spending less than 1 percent of the budget allocated to you. You’re not reaching out by any means possible to a veteran who may be in crisis,” Bryant said in an interview with an editorial writer. “This is a crisis of leadership across the board.”
While VA Secretary Robert Wilkie recently said funds would not go unspent again, his remarks fail to inspire confidence. It appears that it took the GAO report to elevate the issue. The fumbling on such an important and straightforward task underscores concerns about turmoil within the agency and the competence of its staff. How does something like this not get done?
Wilkie, who was confirmed last July, has a daunting task before him to right the ship. Minnesota Gov.-elect Tim Walz, who served as the House’s ranking member on the Veterans Affairs committee, merits praise for his role in prompting the GAO evaluation.
But it shouldn’t have taken the GAO criticism to get the VA to follow through on outreach. Last September, the VA itself issued the definitive National Suicide Data Report. The details are grim. Vets of all ages remain at much higher risk of taking their own lives than the general population.
The rate for veterans nationally: 26.1 per 100,000, compared to 17.4 per 100,000 for nonveterans. The number of veterans lost to suicide has stubbornly stayed at around 6,000 per year for roughly the past decade, an unacceptable toll.
The report also found that the suicide rate rose sharply among younger veterans. In 2015, there were 40.4 suicide deaths per 100,000 veterans aged 18-34, but the figure rose to 45 per 100,000 in 2016.
Not only is outreach needed, but so are new media campaigns tailored to reach and resonate with younger military men and women.
This nation is blessed with an abundance of talent in marketing and advertising. The Twin Cities is home to world-class advertising companies. Perhaps executives here or elsewhere could lend expertise to the VA as it fulfills its outreach responsibilities?
The VA’s work to prevent suicide goes far beyond outreach, of course. The agency needs to fill vacant mental health posts. Specifically, it needs to improve recruiting and find ways to accelerate the often-glacial agency hiring process.
Another priority: expanding its use of technology to better serve veterans who do not live close to a VA Medical Center. Ramping up research into medical marijuana as a potential treatment for veterans with traumatic stress disorder also should be a priority.
These actions will take time to accomplish. But launching an energetic suicide-prevention campaign can be carried out in the short term. Accomplishing this would get Wilkie’s tenure off to a good start and swiftly build confidence in his leadership.
The Veterans Crisis Line can be reached toll free by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1. It’s open to all veterans, not just those who are patients at VA medical centers.