VA Medical Centers May Be Hurting The Agency's Veteran Suicide Prevention Efforts

Bullet Points
Grafitti on a curbstone stone regrets problem of veteran's suicides.
Getty Images/Spencer Grant

Employee shortages and opioid surpluses are severely hindering the Department of Veterans Affairs from effectively fighting the scourge of veteran suicide, according to a new report from the American Legion.


  • Just after the departure of ex-VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin in mid-February, the VA had more than 33,000 vacancies, according to a spokesman; in June, the American Legion told Congress that this shortage could reach 100,000 personnel from nurses and assistants to doctors and psychologists, according to one study.
  • This shortage doesn't just limit access to critical physician expertise, but “can lead to overworked staff, poor patient experiences and lower quality of care,” according to the American Legion report. “Exemplary patient experience is vital to keeping veterans in the VA care network, which studies have shown significantly decreases risk of suicide.”
  • That exhausting work environment can extend to sloppy handling of potentially addictive substances, namely benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium. According to the Legion report, a full quarter of veterans newly diagnosed with PTSD "are still being prescribed harmful and potentially deadly amounts of medications;" a whopping 16% of veterans are prescribed "a morphine-equivalent dose of opioids" concurrently with their Benzo.
  • This is horribly risky and irresponsible behavior. There exists "growing evidence of negative side effects, including an increase of PTSD symptoms, risk of suicidal thoughts and of accidental overdose," the Legion report cautions. “According to a 2013 study, 43 percent of servicemembers who attempted suicide between 2008 and 2010 had taken psychotropic medications.”
  • The instinct to dope agitated veterans to the gills is only doing harm. Research indicates that benzos "have no health benefit in treating PTSD and that there is extreme concern for overdose among veterans who misuse alcohol while on them" — a major risk for a full 50% of the veterans who are prescribed these dangerous substances but booze on them anyway.

If there's some silver lining to the dangerous overprescription trend detailed in the American Legion's veteran suicide report, it's that, according to USA Today, almost every VA facility has experienced a steady drop in its prescription rates since 2012, with an overall decline of 41%. Sure, part of this decline indicated that this is more of a return to relatively “normal” prescription levels than a concentrated drop, after a mid-2010s spike in prescriptions. But as my colleague James Clark noted back in January, it's certainly a step in the right direction — especially when it comes to making a dent in the veteran suicide rate.

Read the full American Legion report below:

American Legion White Paper on Veteran Suicide by Jared Keller

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press “1” to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.

WATCH NEXT:

An Austrian Jagdkommando K9 unit conducts training (Austrian Armed Forces photo)

An Austrian soldier was apparently killed by two military working dogs that he was charged with feeding, the Austrian Ministry of Defense announced on Thursday.

Read More Show Less

Conflict photographer Lynsey Addario has seen a hell of a lot of combat over the past twenty years. She patrolled Afghanistan's Helmand Province with the Marines, accompanied the Army on night raids in Baghdad, took artillery fire with rebel fighters in Libya, and has taken photos in countless other wars and humanitarian disasters around the world.

Along the way, Addario captured images of plenty of women serving with pride in uniform, not only in the U.S. armed forces, but also on the battlefields of Syria, Colombia, South Sudan and Israel. Her photographs are the subject of a new article in the November 2019 special issue of National Geographic, "Women: A Century of Change," the magazine's first-ever edition written and photographed exclusively by women.

The photos showcase the wide range of goals and ideals for which these women took up arms. Addario's work includes captivating vignettes of a seasoned guerrilla fighter in the jungles of Colombia; a team of Israeli military police patrolling the streets of Jerusalem; and a unit of Kurdish women guarding ISIS refugees in Syria. Some fight to prove themselves, others seek to ignite social change in their home country, and others do it to liberate other women from the grip of ISIS.

Addario visited several active war zones for the piece, but she found herself shaken by something much closer to home: the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina.

Addario discussed her visit to boot camp and her other travels in an interview with Task & Purpose, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Read More Show Less

My brother earned the Medal of Honor for saving countless lives — but only after he was left for dead

"As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night."

Opinion

Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

Air Force Master Sgt. John "Chappy" Chapman is my brother. As one of an elite group, Air Force Combat Control — the deadliest and most badass band of brothers to walk a battlefield — John gave his life on March 4, 2002 for brothers he never knew.

They were the brave men who comprised a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) that had been called in to rescue the SEAL Team 6 team (Mako-30) with whom he had been embedded, which left him behind on Takur Ghar, a desolate mountain in Afghanistan that topped out at over 10,000 feet.

As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night. After many delays, the mission should and could have been pushed one day, but Szymanski ordered the team to proceed as planned, and Britt "Slab" Slabinski, John's team leader, fell into step after another SEAL team refused the mission.

But the "plan" went even more south when they made the rookie move to insert directly atop the mountain — right into the hands of the bad guys they knew were there.

Read More Show Less
Photo: ABC News/screenshot

Federal court judge Reggie Walton in Washington D.C. has ruled Hoda Muthana, a young woman who left her family in Hoover, Alabama, to join ISIS, is not a U.S. citizen, her attorneys told AL.com Thursday.

The ruling means the government does not recognize her a citizen of the United States, even though she was born in the U.S.

Read More Show Less

Editor's Note: This article by Gina Harkins originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. -- The Marine Corps could train as many as eight co-ed companies at boot camp each year, and the general overseeing the effort is hitting back against those complaining that the move is lowering training standards.

"Get over it," Maj. Gen. William Mullen, the head of Training and Education Command told Military.com on Thursday. "We're still making Marines like we used to. That has not changed."

Mullen, a career infantry officer who has led troops in combat — including in Fallujah, Iraq — said Marines have likely been complaining about falling standards since 1775.

"I'm assuming that the second Marine walking into Tun Tavern was like 'You know ... our standards have gone down. They're just not the same as it they used to be,'" Mullen said, referring to the service's famous birthplace. "That has always been going on in the history of the Marine Corps."

Read More Show Less