VA chief pressed on efforts to prevent veteran suicides

VA chief pressed on efforts to prevent veteran suicides
© Getty Images

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert WilkieRobert Leon WilkieOvernight Defense: DOD reportedly eyeing Confederate flag ban | House military spending bill blocks wall funding Wilkie: Union exploiting COVID-19 crisis for contract gains Fauci hints at new approach to COVID-19 testing MORE told lawmakers his agency is stepping up efforts to prevent veteran suicides during testimony before a Senate panel Wednesday.

Wilkie testified before a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, where he was pressed on efforts the Trump administration is taking to address what many have called a growing epidemic of suicide among former military servicemembers.

Wilkie said the issue called for a collaborative approach across government.

"Suicide is a national public health issue that affects communities everywhere. Just as there is no single cause of suicide, no single organization can end veteran suicide," Wilkie said in his remarks provided to the panel.

"We must work side-by-side with our partners at all levels of government and in the private sector to provide our veterans with the mental health and suicide prevention services they need."

ADVERTISEMENT

Wilkie highlighted the problem of firearm-related suicides, which he said accounted for 70 percent of veteran suicides. And he said officials would do more to prevent such deaths.

“The goal is to build time and space between the impulse to harm oneself and the act,” the secretary said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) pressed Wilkie on that promise.

“The time and space between someone who overdoses on prescription drugs, you have hours," Blumenthal said. "For someone who uses a gun, you have no time.”

Wilkie told the senator he was open to look at legislation that would take guns away from people if a judge deems those individuals a threat.

Wilkie said education was an important aspect as well, noting that more must be done to talk to servicemembers about mental health issues and to train those in the military from the start of basic training to recognize warning signs of mental illness and depression.

“Educating family members is absolutely key in things as simple as gun storage,” he added.

Lawmakers from both parties said officials must do more on suicide prevention.

It’s something that you don’t want to talk about, but you have to talk about it," Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny IsaksonJohnny Isakson Senate outlook slides for GOP Warnock raises almost M in Georgia Senate race in second quarter Doug Collins leads Kelly Loeffler by 2 points in Georgia Senate race MORE (R-Ga.) said.

“We’re here today because suicide is a national health crisis,” said Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterBipartisan Senate group offers bill to strengthen watchdog law after Trump firings Senate confirms Trump's watchdog for coronavirus funds Montana barrels toward blockbuster Senate fight MORE (Mont.), the committee's top Democrat. “[The] VA needs to do more. Congress needs to do more. Everyone needs to do more.”

Sen John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus Artistic Director Tim Seelig says choirs are dangerous; Pence says, 'We have saved lives' 7 GOP senators slam State Dept for 'slow and inefficient policy' on passports The Hill's Coronavirus Report: National Portrait Gallery's Kim Sajet says this era rewiring people's relationship with culture, art; Trump's war with Twitter heats up MORE (R-Ark.) expressed dismay that the “stats don’t seem to be changing much.” “We haven’t done a good job in lowering our numbers,” he said.

Testifying alongside Wilkie was Dr. Keita Franklin, the executive director of the Suicide Prevention Program at the Veterans Health Administration.

Isakson asked Franklin about veteran suicide prevention hotlines. Franklin said the help offered over the hotlines had improved and veterans are now able to receive same-day support.

Wilkie added that the average wait time for callers is 8 seconds and there are no voicemail boxes.