Health & Safety

June 26, 2012

VA boosts staffing, programs to prevent suicide

by Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

The Department of Veterans Affairs is making progress in suicide prevention, adding staff and programs to treat the “invisible scars” carried home from the war by service members and veterans, the VA undersecretary for health said last week.

Speaking at the June 20-22 Annual DOD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference in Washington, D.C., Dr. Robert Petzel addressed hundreds of mental health professionals, clinicians, military leaders and family members.

“America’s veterans particularly deserve the best care this nation and our departments can offer them, as do America’s service members,” Petzel said.

He said metrics for progress at the VA include, for example, a constant suicide rate they use for middle-aged male veterans as rates for the same age group in the general population rise.

And “we’ve decreased the suicide rate among younger veterans, those 18 to 29 years old who use VA health care services,” Petzel said, noting suicide rates are lower among veterans in general who receive mental health treatment at the VA.

More veterans than ever turn to the VA for help, Petzel said, adding that the organization has seen a 35 percent increase since 2007 in the number of veterans who receive mental health care.

Today the VA spends $6.2 billion a year on care for about 1.5 million veterans, he said.

“To meet this increased need and demand, [VA Secretary Eric K.] Shinseki has increased the number of programs, people and resources that we’re devoting to veterans’ mental health services,” Petzel explained.

The VA employs 21,000 mental health professionals, and in the last four weeks VA officials announced that it is hiring another 1,900 mental health providers.

“Within six months,” Petzel said, “we expect to have onboard approximately 23,000 clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, psychiatric social workers, psychiatric mental health nurses and clinical counselors.”

The VA is also making progress in addressing some of the troubling mental health problems that many veterans face and that are correlated with suicide, he added.

“For the past decade we’ve made significant improvements in substance-use-disorder treatment using evidence-based psychotherapies for problems like depression and providing mental health care in our primary care … clinics,” he said.

The VA also developed a therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder that has been shown to work in clinical trials.

The therapy treats “PTSD by repeatedly exposing veterans to the triggers that make them anxious,” Petzel said. “These prolonged exposures help veterans get used to their bad memories so that they can eventually be free of the debilitating consequences of those memories.”

During his presentation, Petzel announced that the VA is launching a new program to help veterans with PTSD. The AboutFace campaign, he said, features personal videos of veterans from all eras who have experienced PTSD and turned their lives around with treatment.

“Through the videos, viewers meet veterans and hear how PTSD affected them and their loved ones,” Petzel said. “But most importantly, visitors to this website can also learn the steps to gain control over their lives.

AboutFace was designed as a complementary campaign to VA’s Make the Connection campaign, which uses personal testimonials to illustrate true stories of veterans who faced experiences, physical ailments or psychological symptoms, and reached out for help and found ways to overcome their challenges.

Petzel also announced that the VA has set a goal to conduct more than 200,000 clinically based teleconferenced mental health consultations in 2012.

This follows the decision last month to stop charging veterans a copayment when they receive mental health care at home, he said.

“VA health care professionals do this by using video teleconferencing, connecting with patients or connecting with patients and a consulting physician,” he explained.

The VA is reaching more veterans through tele-mental health and mobile technologies, the undersecretary said, adding, “I believe that VA is the largest user of tele-mental health and the largest user of tele-health across the country.”

Despite progress in many areas, Petzel said, the VA recognizes “that we cannot meet this challenge alone. To ensure that service members, veterans and their families get the care they need and deserve, we all must collaborate and we must collaborate with the community.”

All mental health and substance abuse health care providers across the government, communities and the private sector “must partner and all must share responsibility for zero tolerance for suicide,” Petzel said.

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