WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen Michael Bennet has joined other senators in demanding answers from the Department of Veterans Affairs about what they allege are its misuse of suicide prevention resources on the heels of a report showing Colorado's rate of veteran suicides is among the nation’s highest.
Bennet made the demand in a letter co-signed by 20 Senate colleagues that was sent last week to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie.
“Suicide prevention should be one of the VA’s top priorities, especially in the West and rural areas,” Bennet told Colorado Politics.
A recent VA report based on data from 2016 showed the suicide rate among veterans in Colorado is 42.9 per 100,000 compared with a national average of 30.1 per 100,000 veterans.
Colorado ranks 10th among the states for its overall suicide rate, at 20.3 per 100,000 in 2017, according to the Colorado Health Institute.
For reasons not explained in detail by the VA report, the veteran suicide rate was even higher than Colorado's in the nearby states of Arizona, Idaho and Wyoming. Idaho’s rate was the highest among them at 48.9 suicides per 100,000 veterans.
“We’ll keep pressing to improve VA suicide prevention policies, while also finding innovative ways to connect veterans and their families to networks with the care and resources they need,” Bennet said.
A recent Government Accountability Office report said the VA's suicide prevention outreach for at-risk veterans suffered from poor leadership, misuse of resources and a lack of trackable targets for evaluating prevention efforts.
The federal government allocated $6.2 million for suicide prevention outreach last year, such as social media posts and keyword search results. However, the VA used only $57,000, or less than 1 percent of its budget.
The letter from the senators demanded an accounting of the VA budget for suicide prevention and mental health outreach. It also recommended the agency consult with public and mental health outreach experts on how to track the agency’s performance.
"As suicide prevention is the VA's highest clinical priority and the third highest priority in its 2018-2024 Strategic Plan, it is appalling that the VA is not conducting oversight of its own outreach efforts," the senators wrote.
"We request that you provide a full accounting of the $17.7 million the VA budgeted for its suicide prevention and mental health media outreach for fiscal year 2018. We also request that rather than rely strictly on metrics the VA develops internally, that you consult with experts with proven track records of successful public and mental health outreach campaigns with a particular emphasis on how those individuals measure success,” the letter said.
Suicide rates were lower among veterans being treated at Veterans Health Administration centers for emotional trauma, according to the VA.
The Mount Carmel Veterans Service Center in Colorado Springs is a nonprofit organization that tries to help veterans through behavioral health, career and community support.
“We don’t have a statistical answer as to why Colorado’s veteran suicide rate is higher than others,” said retired Army Col. Bob McLaughlin, the Mount Carmel center’s chief operating officer.
The center's officials claim to have assisted more than 5,000 clients since 2016. They say more needs to be done to prevent suicide.
“We know there is a shortage of accessible behavioral health [and] mental health resources in the Colorado Springs [and] Pikes Peak region,” McLaughlin said.
The Mount Carmel center uses a low-cost therapy strategy that includes opportunities to discuss personal problems with behavioral health clinicians as well as programs that teach tai chi, yoga and art to its clients.
Colorado veterans with suicidal tendencies often exhibit feelings that include hopelessness, isolation, survivors guilt and a feeling of moral injury, McLaughlin said.