To its credit, the military has been more forthcoming with information about the number of suicides in its ranks. The Army recently began releasing monthly figures, rather than the usual annual numbers. The Army has also kicked off an education program that helps soldiers better identify and head off potential tragedies. The National Institute of Mental Health has been enlisted to help with a study. One chief concern is that there may not be enough mental health counselors to help troops and veterans in a timely manner.
The issue deserves more attention, because there’s been a steady increase in the number of suicides. The Army reported 128 suicides for 2008, which is a record. The Marine Corps reported 41 suicides, the highest figure since 1995.
So it is disappointing that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has denied a request for more information about a psychiatrist who treated two veterans who committed suicide last year. The Spokesman-Review filed a Freedom of Information Act request for more information about Dr. William L. Brown. Six veterans under care at the Spokane VA committed suicide last year.
Among other things, the newspaper wants to know how many patients under Brown’s care have killed themselves. The names of four dead veterans are unknown, but the names of two victims – Spc. Timothy Juneman and Lucas Senescall – have become public. Their families have raised concerns about their mental health care. Brown has declined to comment and the Spokane VA also refused the public records request.
On appeal, the VA’s acting general counsel, John H. Thompson, said the request constituted an invasion of Brown’s privacy. He also worried that the information could be “misleading and inflammatory” and “taken out of context.”
However, the public has a compelling interest in the mental health treatment of veterans by a public agency. If an agency can make blanket assertions that its employees’ privacy rights trump that, then getting even the most basic information would be daunting. That makes it more difficult to evaluate the performance of agencies.
The excuse that the information could be used in nefarious ways is an old one and should be rejected outright. Any information can be used irresponsibly, but it’s an obvious conflict of interest to allow public agencies to predict when that could happen. The public interest is better served with the release of information, and once that happens, agencies could put it into context or explain their side of the story. The ultimate judgment rests with the public, as it should be with open government.
The VA’s decision stands in contrast to President Barack Obama’s recent executive order calling for a more open policy on Freedom of Information Act requests. As is, the Spokane VA has been able to stonewall an information request related to a legitimate issue for seven months. So, it’s anyone’s guess how the agency is addressing a serious issue.