The Trump administration said from its first days that preventing suicide was its top clinical priority for veterans.
The performance of its national outreach campaign shows otherwise, though, because of a leadership vacuum at the Department of Veterans Affairs and nonexistent means to measure effectiveness, a new report by the Government Accountability Office found.
As the number of veterans taking their own lives climbed, VA’s media outreach plunged in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 – with fewer social media posts, public service announcements and paid advertisements compared with the agency’s efforts during the Obama administration, auditors said.
The VA set aside $6.2 million this year alone to advertise its crisis hotline – the centerpiece of its suicide-prevention efforts – online, on billboards, buses and trains, and via local and national radio commercials. But as of September, the agency had spent $57,000 – less than 1 percent of that budget, auditors wrote.
About 20 veterans die by suicide every day, VA data shows. That’s nearly twice the suicide rate among Americans who did not serve in the military.
In 2016, 174 veterans died by suicide in Washington state, according to the VA. Nationally, the agency reported 6,079 veteran suicides that year.
By not reaching as many vulnerable veterans as it could have, the Veterans Health Administration, the agency’s health care arm, “may not have exposed as many people in the community, such as veterans at risk for suicide, or their families and friends, to its suicide prevention outreach content,” the report concluded.
The VA concurred with the GAO’s findings. In response to the report, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told auditors that “every death by suicide is a tragedy. We will not relent in our efforts to connect veterans in need with lifesaving support.”
Agency spokesman Curt Cashour blamed the weak outreach on President Trump’s first VA secretary, David Shulkin, who served from February 2017 to March 2018, when he was fired.
“During former VA employee David Shulkin’s brief tenure as secretary, VA’s suicide prevention outreach dropped significantly, and the suicide prevention office had no permanent leader for nearly nine months,” Cashour said in an email. Wilkie appointed a new permanent director for suicide prevention shortly after arriving as acting secretary in April, Cashour said, “and she is reviewing the spending for this important program.”
Shulkin declined to comment.
Despite the national report, all funding for suicide prevention outreach is being utilized in Spokane, said Dr. Quinn Bastian, chief of Behavioral Health Service at Mann-Grandstaff VA. Though he could not provide specific numbers, he noted that suicide rates in Spokane have dropped in the past several years.
Bastian said there are more than 100,000 veterans in the Spokane area, and about 32,000 of them are enrolled with the VA. Of those veterans, about 7,400 came through behavioral health services in the last year. This branch encompasses services for mental health, substance abuse or homelessness.
“If anything, here in Spokane and our region, our outreach has increased,” Bastian said.
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