November 21, 2008, Canandaigua, NY – Veteran Affairs Secretary Dr. James Peake called the suicide rate among veterans “a chronic problem” during a visit Thursday to the VA Medical Center.
Referring to statistics showing that, on average, 6,500 U.S. veterans a year – or 18 a day – commit suicide, Peake said the data suggests an elevation in the suicide rate among veterans of all ages. Figures also suggest an “upturn in younger veterans” committing suicide, said Peake, including those who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Peake, a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran and former cardiac surgeon, toured the 75-year-old VA campus and talked with the media and local veterans advocates during the visit, which was prompted by the success of the national veterans suicide-prevention hotline.
The hotline, which opened in July 2007, fielded 84,541 calls as of Sept. 30. That figure was nearly double the 43,294 calls received as of April 30. The number of calls resulting in rescues rose even more sharply, from 885 as of April 30 to 2,130 as of Sept. 30.
The hotline serves a dual purpose: not only saving lives but developing data to enhance mental-health services, said Peake.
That data is helping in the research being done by the Center of Excellence at the Canandaigua VA. The center employs 41 administrative officers, training consultants and clinical researchers focused on preventing suicide and treating mental illness in veterans. It is working in conjunction with the hotline and strives to link veterans with the appropriate services and programs, as well as educating the community and VA staff about sensitive issues such as suicide.
The key now is to continue to “get the word out,” said Peake, in letting veterans and their families know about the hotline and other VA services. Peake, who became VA secretary in December, said he has lifted a ban on advertising VA services to help in the outreach efforts.
Thursday’s visit, which was not open to the public, was attended by veterans’ advocates Ralph Calabrese, a veterans of the Korean War; and Gene Simes, a Marine Corps veteran and national chairman of Operation Firing for Effect.
A few of their questions for Peake centered on the changing role of the VA, expanding outpatient services and using private health-care facilities to address certain veterans’ needs.
Calabrese said he thinks veterans need the camaraderie and empathy they receive at a VA, as opposed to receiving health-care at private facilities, where providers don’t always have experience with veterans.
Peake said the role of the VA is shifting to meet the needs of the 21st century, including expanding evening and weekend hours at the VA for serving outpatients and working more out in the community.
Reaching veterans often means finding “that teachable moment,” said Peake. A veteran may have been home for a while before discovering troubles in work or family life tied to his or her military service.
“It is the role of the VA to be there for special needs and for those who have fallen through the cracks,” Peake said.