If you are a veteran in crisis or concerned about one, the Veterans Crisis Line to reach caring, qualified responders is with the Department of Veterans Affairs at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1. The confidential hotline is available 24/7 by phone, text at “838255” or chat online. Support for those who are deaf and hard of hearing is available at 1-800-799-4889.
Navy veteran Lee Becker knows how hard it can be to ask for help in the military.
“I remember when I was in the military I had to talk to leaders [who] would chastise service members for getting medical support for mental health,” said Becker, who served at the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, providing care to Marines and Sailors serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So when he began his career at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) about a decade ago, he knew things needed to change. In 2017, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times the rate for nonveteran adults, according to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, increasing the average number of veteran suicides per day to 16.8.
“The VA historically has always been in reactive mode, always caught by surprise,” he said, citing the example of the lack of health care for female veterans, who are 2.2 times more likely to die by suicide than non-veteran women.
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After an explosive report by the Washington Post in 2014 detailing tens of thousands of veterans waiting for care as VA employees were allegedly directed to manipulate records, some things have changed. This April, veteran trust in the VA reached 80 percent, up 19 percent since January 2017, according to the agency. And the former chief of staff for the Veterans Experience Office is now working for Medallia, a customer experience management company. He is the solutions principal for public sector and health care, and he helped launch the Veterans Signals program in partnership with the VA.
The program utilizes artificial intelligence systems typically used in the customer experience industry to monitor responses based on tone and language and respond immediately to at-risk veterans. About 2,800 crisis alerts have been routed to VA offices, according to Medallia, providing early intervention for more than 1,400 veterans in need within minutes of being alerted.
“If they have the ability to harness this capability so they can sell more, why can’t public service agencies have the ability to serve more?” Becker asked. “It opened the aperture, making sure we really targeted the care. We were getting insights that helped anticipate future problems. We were able to identify veterans that are in crisis and route that case directly to the veterans crisis line.”
Through surveys, Medallia collects customer feedback for the VA that seeks to understand veterans as customers with other identities outside of their military service. One call came from an Asian American female veteran living in Idaho who was scared to leave her house due to racist stigma blaming Asian Americans for the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think the greatest tragedy is that I see a tsunami coming around mental health and if we don’t mitigate that by truly listening and anticipating the needs of the people, we’re going to have an issue,” Becker said.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities for the most vulnerable communities. The VA medical system has recorded more than 53,000 cases of COVID-19 among veterans in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, AARP reported, with more than 3,000 deaths — not including veterans who were not diagnosed at VA hospitals and medical centers.
Access to care is still an issue. A report released last week by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General revealed deficiencies in care, care coordination and facility response in the case of patient who died by suicide after being discharged by the Memphis, Tenn., VA Medical Center. But Becker remains optimistic that he can make change from within the system.
“It has to start on the military side. We have to make sure that it’s very clear it’s ok not to be ok, if someone needs mental health support it’s not weakness,” he said.
And that support needs to carry through veterans’ transitions to civilian life, Becker added.
“[The military is] a cocoon, you get fed, you have a job, you get issued clothes,” he said. “When you leave, how do we make sure that all of those needs are getting met?”
While he’s optimistic, Becker is also a realist and he knows there are still very real problems with the VA. But he says it’s more an issue of capability than bad intentions.
“There’s a few bad apples, I’ve supervised those bad apples and I’ve had to get rid of those bad apples,” Becker said. But he’s also seen new leaders step up.
“It’s a tale of two cities,” he said. “We’re seeing a set of leadership behaviors that are not conducive to the needs of what we’re looking for, but we’re seeing great leaders within the federal government who are career employees and even some politicians.”
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