The Whole Country is Grappling with Suicide Epidemic, VA Secretary Says

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"I believe we have turned a corner," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said Nov. 8, 2019, at a National Press Club luncheon about his department's recent successes in patient satisfaction and veteran care. Dorothy Mills-Gregg/Military.com
"I believe we have turned a corner," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said Nov. 8, 2019, at a National Press Club luncheon about his department's recent successes in patient satisfaction and veteran care. Dorothy Mills-Gregg/Military.com

The Department of Veterans Affairs is trying to address the serious issue of veteran suicide, but the problem is not unique to former service members, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said Friday.

Speaking at a National Press Club luncheon, Wilkie said suicide claims the lives of about 20 veterans a day, but it's also the leading cause of death among young adults.

"We are not immune from problems that impact this nation," he said. "America has a shortage of mental health providers. We have a shortage of mental health providers."

The Centers for Disease Control reported in 2016 that suicide was the second leading cause of death for people 10 to 34 years old, an increase from nine years earlier, when it was the 10th leading cause.

Related: Alarming VA Report Totals Decade of Veteran Suicides

Meanwhile, a September report by the VA found more than 6,100 veterans died by suicide in 2017, a 6% increase since 2008. During that time frame, 60,000 veterans died by suicide.

Wilkie pointed out that this is not a new issue among veterans, illustrating with a historic tale.

Benjamin Harrison was president in 1889 for one term, Wilkie said, and one of the things that troubled him during his four years was the "avalanche of suicide notices he was receiving on his desk."

"This is a problem that has been with us for that long," Wilkie said of the 130-year-old anecdote.

He added that there were similar increases in suicide rates before the attack on Pearl Harbor and during Vietnam.

"Mental health. The last great frontier in medicine. I've said we're not even at the Sputnik stage when it comes to getting our arms around what goes on inside of here," he said, moving his finger around his head.

Wilkie explained that, of the veterans who commit suicide each day, 60% "had no contact with the VA."

He said the VA has made recent changes, such as same-day mental health services and giving at least one million veterans mental health screenings so far. It is also teaming up with other agencies in a task force, the President's Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End the National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS), to create a holistic approach to preventing suicide.

He said he's confident PREVENTS will release guidance, as scheduled, in March.

— Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@military.com.

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