Editorial Column: US Owes Veterans Better Treatment

The Lariat

April 25, 2008 – No matter how divided the nation’s opinion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is, nearly all Americans believe we should honor our veterans. Sadly, when soldiers return home from the battlefield in the Middle East, they are facing a domestic attack as well.

After the mental health ward at the Dallas VA was shut down in early April because the fourth suicide of the year, more questions are being raised about the quality of veteran suicide prevention.

Tuesday, in a lawsuit questioning the mental health programs at VA hospitals, an expert witness testified that veterans are killing themselves at three to seven times the rate of the general population, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Perhaps that statistic shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering VA lacks a comprehensive plan for suicide prevention.

While the Dallas VA has spent more than $250,000 in the last six months in the name of suicide prevention, the money was used to safety-proof rooms of at-risk patients, not to create a better plan for diagnosis and treatment. Obviously, ensuring that doorknobs, shower curtains and light fixtures could not be easily used to hang oneself is an important part of making veterans safer.

But the more important issue is: why do they want to take their own life in the first place? We must look deeper into the issue rather than settling for a quick fix.

Unfortunately, if someone really wants to inflict personal injury, there is no amount of metal filing or safety locking that can prevent it.

We must look beyond furniture renovations to address the increased rate of depressed and suicidal veterans. The current method of “diagnosing” the severity of mental illness includes asking the patient if he or she has thought about committing suicide or that life was meaningless in the last two weeks. This is an insufficient way to treat any human being who has experienced trauma, much less our military heroes.

These men and women have seen unspeakable horrors of war and deserve much more personal attention and mental analysis than is currently provided.

Especially considering the possibility that large levels of troops will be headed home in the next few years, we need to take a more proactive approach to suicide prevention.

We have already lost more than 4,000 soldiers in combat and we cannot afford to lose any more to suicide.

Before the Dallas psychiatric ward re-opens, there needs to be more comprehensive psychological treatment in place. When treating a mental illness, one must take into account more than just the physical environment as a means of prevention.

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