WASHINGTON — Officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs and veterans’ advocates — including one Vermont official — appeared before a congressional committee Wednesday to offer solutions on how to stem a wave of suicides among former members of the armed forces.
In Vermont, about 21 percent of all suicides are committed by veterans, according to a report released by the VA last month.
Nationwide, “We are losing about 22 veterans every single day as a result of suicide,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “That’s more than 8,000 veterans every year.”
Sanders presided at Wednesday’s hearing, during which several of those testifying advocated a more streamlined process for veterans seeking treatment and an increase in the number of mental health clinicians employed by the VA — while also stressing the benefits of veteran-to-veteran outreach.
During the hearing, Andre Wing, the team leader for the Vermont Veterans Outreach Program — an initiative sponsored by the VA and the National Guard — said that one of the hurdles for Vermont veterans seeking treatment was the rural nature of the state.
“In the past many veterans would miss their appointments or didn’t bother enrolling because they could not afford the travel and/or didn’t have transportation,” said Wing, who noted the relative scarcity of public transportation in Vermont.
To deal with that issue, Wing’s outreach specialists now provide transportation to veterans for their first few visits.
However, even when veterans are able to reach a treatment center, they often abandon efforts to seek help when faced with the daunting amount of paperwork they have to file, Jacob Wood told the committee.
“I did attempt to seek counseling through VA, but I was completely underwhelmed by the care that I received, and I ended up pursuing counseling in the private sector,” testified Wood, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who co-founded Team Rubicon. The latter is a nonprofit organization that provides returning veterans with an opportunity to use their skills and training to provide emergency relief in the wake of natural disasters.
During his testimony, Wood recalled that his first three sessions at the VA were dominated by paperwork, at which point he turned to the private sector for treatment.
Last August, President Obama issued an executive order calling for 1,600 additional mental health clinicians to be hired by the VA by the middle of this year. As of March 13, the VA had hired 1,105 clinicians.
“I want to commend VA for the strides it has made,” said Sanders. “However, I am very concerned that VA has hired only 47 clinicians in the last two months.”
Robert Petzel, the VA’s under secretary of health, told the committee that he expects the VA to meet the June 30 deadline. He added that mental health care for veterans is already becoming more accessible..
“Outpatient mental health visits have increased to over 17 million in 2012, up from 14 million in 2009,” said Petzel. “The number of veterans receiving specialized mental health treatment rose to 1.3 million in 2012.”
Edward Donga is affiliated with the Boston University Journalism Program.MORE IN Central Vermont
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