The Fight To Stop Veteran Suicides

Photo: Evan Vucci/AP Images.
According to one government study, 22 veterans commit suicide in the United States every single day. It's a problem of epidemic proportions — and particularly sad because vets from recent wars are often return home from their service to face unemployment and difficulty finding medical care.

As a result, those recent war vets are 50% more likely to take their own lives than non-vets. And, for women vets — who actually represent the military’s fastest-growing population right now — it's even worse: In a 2010 study, researchers found that female veterans between the ages of 18 and 34 are three times as likely as their civilian peers to die by their own hand.

This issue may finally be starting to get some attention. On Tuesday, the Senate unanimously passed a bill, by a 99-to-0 margin, to “improve suicide prevention and mental health treatment programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs.” The bill, which now heads off for Obama's signature, is a rare moment of unanimity from a Congress that seems to disagree on everything.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention For American Veterans Act, as it's officially called, is named for a 28-year-old marine who was nearly killed by a sniper on one of his stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then returned home to fight PTSD and depression. Hunt was never satisfied with the level of care he was receiving from the V.A. — in 2011, he took his own life. 

The SAV Act “aims to help reduce military and veteran suicides and improve access to quality mental health care." The measure creates outside reviews for V.A. hospitals, so that they can identify and implement the most effective programs. It also creates a centralized online resource center and peer-to-peer counseling programs in a few pilot areas. 

While the act is a great start, the problems at the root of veteran suicide — mental disorders such as PTSD and depression — are not easy ones to solve. While everyone who takes his or her own life obviously has their own story, of those who commit suicide, 90% suffer from a mental illness at the time of their death. 

Women who return from war face a unique set of challenges. One of the biggest is military sexual trauma. All vets are at risk of being afflicted with PTSD after returning from battle, but sexual abuse causes a different and unique form of trauma. This disturbing trend, which advocates have dubbed “the second battle,” affects 1 in 4 women in the military, according to a 2014 V.A. survey. 

When these victims seek help, though, they’re not always reaching out to the most woman-friendly of institutions. According to a report by the Institute of Medicine, 31% of V.A. clinics “lack staff to provide adequate treatment for sexual assault.” Some V.A. centers don’t have an OB/GYN on staff — some don’t even offer female restrooms. On top of that, many female vets say they haven’t been able to claim sexual-trauma disability compensation benefits because they apparently don’t have sufficient paperwork to support their claims.

Mark Kaplan, PhD, the researcher who worked on the 2010 study mentioned above, implores the public to take veteran suicide more seriously, saying, "When we think of suicide, and suicide completion, I don't think we often think of women enough.” Sounds like he’s more correct than any of us would like to admit.
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