Ranking Member Walz Hosts Hearing On Veteran Suicide Prevention
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Ranking Member Tim Walz (D-MN) released the following statement after the full committee met in open session to discuss veteran suicide prevention, hear from experts in the veteran community, and question current Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officials over the progress of core VA initiatives aimed at eliminating suicide among veterans.
The hearing comes one day after the VA Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention released its report, “National Suicide Data Report 2005-2016,” which found that the suicide rate among veterans was 1.5 times greater than non-veterans, and that the suicide rate for veterans ages 18 to 34 increased by more than 10 percent from 2015 to 2016. You can read Ranking Member Walz’s statement reacting to the VA’s report here.
The hearing comes two days after the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) released its report, “Review of Mental Health Care Provided Prior to a Veteran’s Death by Suicide - Minneapolis VA Health Care System Minnesota,” which investigated the events leading up to a veteran’s suicide in the parking lot of the Minneapolis VA Healthcare System. The report found that the Minneapolis VA failed to utilize the cutting-edge interventions the facility had at its disposal to protect the veteran. You can read Ranking Member Walz’s statement reacting to OIG’s report here.
Ranking Member Walz Opening Statement As Prepared For Delivery
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I want to take a brief moment to thank you for scheduling this important hearing. The tragic epidemic of veteran suicide is one of the most serious challenges our country faces today. As the VA report on veteran suicide detailed yesterday, the rate of veteran suicide is increasing, especially among our younger veterans ages 18-34; and as this challenge becomes greater, so too does our need to work together, identify the root causes, and figure out a constructive, holistic way to turn the tide on the veteran suicide epidemic.
I would also like to take a few minutes to tell the story of a young veteran we tragically lost and who many in the audience became familiar with in recent days. I did not know this veteran personally and I share their story with the permission and at the request of the veteran’s family, so that it may help us make progress as a nation in our effort to prevent veteran suicide.
In February of this year, Justin Miller, a young 33-year-old veteran from Minnesota, reached out to the VA for help dealing with thoughts of suicide. Justin explained that he had access to firearms nearby and he feared for his life. He expressed hopelessness, confusion, and sorrow regarding his personal and professional life.
Justin had reached out to the VA for mental health care through the Veterans Crisis Line. VCL recommended that Justin visit the VA Emergency Department – which he did immediately.
Upon his visit to the emergency department, Justin explained that his significant-other of two years had asked him to move out of their shared home. Justin also explained that battling the symptoms of PTSD, watching the erosion of his personal relationships, and the family and financial stressors he experienced had become overwhelming.
Unfortunately, when Justin arrived at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, the help he needed never materialized, as VA clinicians failed to utilize the cutting-edge interventions the facility had at its disposal.
One example being the three step REACH VET process, in which a clinician can assess a veteran’s risk of suicide. If a veteran is determined to be at a high-risk of suicide, their medical record is then flagged for the Suicide Prevention Coordinator, who will then ensure the veteran receives an appropriate level of care and has knowledge of and access to other services throughout VA that may assist the veteran.
In Justin’s case, REACH VET was not utilized. And so, he was never given a high-risk designation.
In the written testimony of Dr. Brown, an expert on the development, implementation, and assessment of suicide interventions - he commends VA on its use of Safety Planning Intervention (or SPI). The SPI is a six-step protocol in which a clinician can empower a veteran to cope with suicidal thoughts through the development of a post-discharge plan.
When Justin was discharged after a few days, he didn’t have a discharge plan. Clinicians weren’t sure whether Justin had access to guns or a surplus of medication that he could use to hurt himself. Clinicians failed to ensure that Justin had identified friends and family who he could reach out to in case he felt suicidal again. The Suicide Prevention Coordinator never consulted with Justin, engaged with Justin’s clinicians, or flagged Justin as high-risk.
Though Justin stepped out of the hospital last winter, away from the nurses, doctors, and medications that had assisted in stabilizing him, he tragically never left the grounds that day. VA police found Justin dead in his car the next morning from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
My heart aches with the family and friends of Justin. I cannot even begin to understand the pain you feel. No loved-one should ever have to endure such loss. While we may not have known Justin, we mourn with you as a nation.
It is infuriating to know that there is a possibility that Justin’s death could have been prevented. It should outrage us all that an entire health care system failed at something so serious and that it claimed to be their highest clinical priority.
VHA needs to be better than this.
However, it can only be better if we all do our jobs - the agency must continue to serve veterans AND we must continue to oversee the agency. Secretary Wilkie implying in his testimony yesterday before the Senate that our constitutional right to oversight is a burden on his ability to implement the VA Mission Act signals a dangerous misunderstanding of the role of Congress. That must be corrected immediately.
Our oversight is integral to ensuring the VA is accurately and effectively carrying out policies and procedures that are in place, including policies that aim to help prevent veteran suicide. Our ability to conduct oversight could literally be the difference between life and death. This I cannot stress enough, and that is why we are here today. To determine how we can better prevent tragedies like the one that took place last winter in Minneapolis from happening.
Given that this is my last term in Congress, my time sitting across from Chairman Roe as Ranking Member is coming to a close. I thank him for his partnership and thank each and every one of my colleague for their steadfast dedication to serve our nation’s veterans. It has been an honor to serve our veterans alongside you all. There is no space between us when it comes to saving the lives of our heroes. When I am gone from these halls, I charge you to continue to fight for the care and the lives of our veterans.
The bottom line is, if we lose one veteran to suicide, that is one too many. We still have a lot of work ahead of us, and we may never get to zero, but one thing is certain: we must never stop trying. In order to truly make a difference, we must work together. Our veterans deserve nothing less.
Gregory K. Brown Ph.D.
Director, Center for the Prevention of Suicide
Research Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry
Perelman School of Medicine
University of Pennsylvania
Michael C. Richardson
Vice President of Independent Services and Mental Health
Wounded Warrior Project
Lt Col James R. Lorraine USAF (Ret.)
President and Chief Executive Officer
America’s Warrior Partnership
Guard Your Buddy
Keita Franklin LCSW, Ph.D.
National Director, Suicide Prevention
Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention
Veterans Health Administration
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Michael W. Fisher MSW
Chief Readjustment Counseling Officer
Readjustment Counseling Service
Veterans Health Administration
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs