Suicides among veterans are increasing as legislation and resources are clearly needed.
The Austin Veterans Affairs Clinic’s waiting room was the scene of a veteran suicide this week.
Reports have said an unnamed veteran was upset after coming out of a meeting with a patient advocate. He allegedly said, “Well, I guess I’ll just shoot myself.”
He pulled out a gun and shot himself in the stomach. The veteran died of the injury shortly afterwards.
He was enrolled in the Phoenix program with the Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Medical Center in Temple, Texas, was discharged, and then transferred to Austin.
2016 statistics indicated an overwhelming 530 suicides by Texas veterans. That means veterans are twice as likely to take their own life than the general population in the Lone Star state.
The increasing rates of suicide among veterans have prompted advocates to push a Green Alert bill, active in Wisconsin, nationwide.
The “Corey Adams Searchlight Act” also called the “National Green Alert Act of 2019,” re-introduced to the House and Senate in March, is additionally supported by New Hampshire and Iowa senators. Connecticut and Tennessee have also been considering a bill.
There have been some concerns about privacy, as the alerts are broadcast similarly to the Amber and Silver alerts, but since the Wisconsin system came online, six out of seven times veterans have been found safe through its use.
The House version of the Green Alert bill was passed to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security March 25 and the Senate version was sent to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs March 7.
VA suicides, in particular, have been on the rise.
This suicide came on the heels of two other veteran suicides over the weekend in Georgia, both at VA medical facilities.
Nineteen suicides occurred on VA campuses from October 2017 to November 2018, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Veterans left suicide notes clearly naming the VA as an ineffective source of help.
“I bet if you look at the 22 suicides a day you will see VA screwed up in 90%,” wrote one vet.
Another said, “I dared to dream again. Then you showed me the door faster than last night’s garbage. To the streets, homeless, right before the holidays.”
The Murfreesboro, Tenn., hospital, where one of the suicides occurred, was ranked among the worst in the nation for mental health.
The Austin VA incident took place in the first-floor waiting room of the clinic. Witnesses said hundreds of people were in the room when the man killed himself shortly after noon.
“That incident, on its own, is tragic for the one person. But then for all the people who witnessed it, whether or not they were already suffering from PTSD, there is the risk of developing it from witnessing something like that,” said, Laura Abbruzzese, a Waco licensed professional counselor who specializes in first responder PTSD and trauma.
“These suicides are sentinel events,” said Eric Caine, director of the Injury Control Research Center for Suicide Prevention at the University of Rochester.
“It’s very important for the VA to recognize that the place of a suicide can have great meaning. There is a real moral imperative and invitation here to take a close inspection of the quality of services at the facility level.”
There are issues with accessibility to appropriate care and money.
Deborah Meyer, public affairs officer with the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System that covers Austin, Temple and Waco said, in a statement, that they would be partnering with the VA in Austin so that therapy services regarding this incident would be provided.
McLennan County Veteran’s Service Officer Steve Hernandez said the underlying problem with the VA system currently is “there is no facility in the state or in the country dedicated to serving veterans with mental health issues.
Weapons are prohibited in VA facilities, but the Austin clinic does not have metal detectors and relies instead on random bag searches.
Ken Walker, a veteran who was in group therapy at the clinic when the shooting happened, is now worried about safety while getting care.
“When I went home, my wife, that’s what she brought up,” he said. “I don’t know if I want you going back there if this happens.”
“For military veterans, access to weapons and familiarity with weapons makes it too easy,” said Jack Swope, a licensed professional counselor with Austin’s Samaritan Center, and a veteran himself.
He says the issue for veterans with mental health needs is accessibility.
“Part of it is a matter of accessibility, getting there, and frankly part of it is a matter of finances and costs.”
Last winter, the Government Accounting Office reported VA cut spending on advertising money about suicide.
Of $6.2 million allocated to paid advertising for suicide prevention, according to Trump’s 2018 bill, the VA spent only $57,000 as of the Fall 0f 2018, despite the department’s assertion that suicide prevention was its top clinical priority.
The senate grilled VA Secretary Robert Wilkie Jr. about the unspent money at the end of 2018.
“This year, I’m making sure that we are spending the funding 100 percent,” Dr. Steven Lieberman, the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, said at a joint Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees hearing.
“We certainly have obligated all the dollars, and we have plans to reach out, including social media, this year. We have to get it right.”