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Congress missed the point when it came to helping veterans

A “goat” was the unexpected star of Sept. 10, 2020, House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on a batch of proposed veteran suicide prevention legislation. Not the kind of “goat” you’d see in a sports hall of fame or on a farm. A scapegoat: firearms.

While firearms are the number one cause of death among veterans who choose to die by their hand, strangely absent was any concern over what causes a veteran to pick up a gun, or turn to any lethal means, for that matter, for self-harm. One good place to start would’ve been the unresolved mental health issues that get exacerbated by systemic barriers to accessing care, especially during the current pandemic.

Many veterans who get frustrated by the bureaucracy of the health care system or negative encounters while seeking care get lost once avoidance and abandonment of treatment become factors. Might that explain why most veterans who die by suicide weren’t seen at a VA in the two years prior? A veteran killed himself a week after his VA provider, who believed he was malingering, shouted the patient can shoot himself, according to a VA Inspector General report. However, this got no mention during the hearing.

Also unaddressed were the dangers presented by medications commonly used to treat mental conditions, such as fluoxetine, with side effects that can push many veterans toward suicide. Some mental health-related concerns are better served by non-medicinal approaches, such as yoga or warrior retreats, and can be resolved through normal emotional processes if adequately supported and allowed to progress as nature intended healthily.

Instead, loosely prescribed drugs like antidepressants lead many veterans to believe their recovery and ability to self-regulate their reactions to hardship must remain in the hands of doctors and therapists essentially for life. 

How these realities factor into the veteran suicide problem needed to be discussed but weren’t even touched upon. The question is why.

One glaring reality is hard to ignore. Medicating our way through mental health crises among those with unique needs, from kids to military veterans, is big business for a pharmaceutical industry that has many moving parts — and self-serving incentives, in my view. New disorders added to the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders now include “caffeine withdrawal syndrome” and “binge eating disorder,” the latter of which justifies prescriptions for anticonvulsant and antidepressant medications. 

Should we worry about publication bias in randomized controlled trials that get reported by drug companies? Or who’s funding these trials? Or the near cult-like adherence among mental health professionals to limited research, such as cognition therapies and other “evidence-based” practices, that fail to account for individualized aspects of mental health and behavior, such as race and gender? What we know is despite the litany of evidence-based methods, advances in research, and billions of dollars being spent to stop veterans from killing themselves, the needle hasn’t moved one bit. I suspect we’ll find it’s moved in the opposite direction.

This begs the question of why a rarely held legislative hearing ostensibly focused on preventing veteran suicides instead focused on a single manner of death, not the chain of causes, events, and circumstances that often lead up to it. Cause of death is merely part of the entire continuum where the desire to die runs rampant among veterans for reasons that remain undetermined — and now largely ignored. 

Moreover, to say that any discussions on Capitol Hill that involve restricting access to firearms will predictably sabotage any progress made toward compromises is to state the obvious. Particularly at a time in our society where the tension between individual liberties and the greater good are as taut as ever. Not to mention the fact many veterans who need help won’t seek care if they believe it will require confiscation of a firearm. Making firearms access a determinant of whether a bill on veteran suicide will move forward, as was insinuated by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.), begs several head-scratching questions among those who want to believe all involved genuinely share an interest in finding a solution.

This development invites a cruel, ironic play on words where firearms are a poison pill that House Democrats expect Senate Republicans to swallow, lest they be blamed for killing a potential bill that might’ve otherwise saved lives by drastically curbing suicide among veterans. In the end, however, continued empty rhetoric from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about valuing the lives of veterans above all else — and the shattered expectations that follow their inaction — will be responsible for more veteran suicides than any other cause.

We can have legitimate discussions on the strengths and weaknesses of various interventions and whether federal funds should pay for them. But our lawmakers cannot continue to act as if the answer resides with those who were given all the time, money, and opportunity to fix a problem over decades with the same thinking that created it.

Sherman Gillums Jr. served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Persian Gulf War, and Global War on Terror eras, and currently serves as the chief strategy officer for AMVETS.

Tags Mark Takano

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