VA Faces Challenges Expanding Mental Health Care


Army veteran Phillip Faustman sifts through his belongings at a San Diego homeless shelter. Faustman says he attempted suicide three times in two and a half years.
Christopher Maue / KPBS

The following is a report from Steve Walsh, my colleague at the American Homefront Project, reporting on military life and veterans issues.

The Veterans Health Administration is planning to make mental health care more available to help reduce veteran suicide. But veterans advocates worry about the impact on the already strained VA health system.

A recent government study concluded that the majority of veterans who commit suicide are not enrolled in VA mental health care.

Phillip Faustman almost became a part of that statistic. Faustman, who is gay, joined the Army in 2012 after the end of the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy, which barred gay and lesbian troops from serving openly in the military.

“I waited for the repeal, so I joined the Army to prove to myself that I could do it,” he said.

While in the military, he suffered sexual trauma that led to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Discouraged, he left the military in 2015, he said.

“When I first got out, I was alone, and no one was really helping me,” he said. “So I had my suicide attempt.”

Periodically homeless, Faustman did not turn to the VA, in part because he found the enrollment process daunting.

That’s a common problem among new veterans, only forty percent of whom receive VA mental health coverage. Many are discouraged from seeking care because of a complicated process to determine their eligibility. Veterans may have to prove, for instance, that their mental health need is connected to their service.

Without treatment, Faustman attempted suicide three times in less than three years. Continue reading

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A Memorial Ceremony For Military Suicide Survivors

This is the third year the American Legion Post 5, 3810 W. Kennedy Blvd, Tampa, is reaching out to family members and friends who have lost a veteran or military member to suicide.

The hope is to give an opportunity to remember loved ones, to honor their service to the country and to erase the stigma surrounding service members who have died by suicide.

“This event and message will focus on family members and friends who silently suffer the lost of their loved one to their battle with their inner demons,” stated Ellsworth “Tony” Williams, a retired Army combat veteran and chair of the American Legion Florida 15th District Veteran Affairs and Rehab.

The ceremony is Sunday, May 21, 2017 at 1 p.m. at Post 5, 3810 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, FL.

New Report: Suicide 21 Percent Greater Risk For Veterans

veteran_suicide_crisisline_graphicAfter releasing a summary in early July, the Department of Veterans Affairs today released its  full report on veteran suicides.

The Suicide Among Veterans and Other Americans 2001-2014 is a comprehensive analysis that looked at more than 55 million veterans’ records  from 1979 to 2014 from every state in the nation.

Some key findings from this year’s report include:
  • In 2014, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day. Six of the 20 were users of the VA Health services.
  • In 2014, veterans accounted for 18 percent of all adult deaths by suicide in the U.S. but only make up 8.5 percent of the population age 18 or older.
  • In 2014, about 67 percent of all suicides by veterans a firearm was used.
  • Approximately 65 percent of all veterans who died from suicide in 2014 were 50 years of age or older.
  • Since 2001, U.S. adult civilian suicides increased 23 percent, while Veteran suicides increased 32 percent in the same time period. After controlling for age and gender, this makes the risk of suicide 21 percent greater for Veterans.

A fact sheet is available and the VA is taking several measures to increase prevention programs and access to care and the Veterans Crisis Line: 800-273-8255.

 

Run for Jamie Goal Reached, Awareness Mission Continues

Alex Estrella reached to 0 mile marker of US 1 in Key West on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. after running and walking 405 miles from Tampa. Photo by Monica Kim.

Alex Estrella reached to 0 mile marker of US 1 in Key West on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. after running and walking 405 miles from Tampa. Photo by Monica Kim.

Alex Estrella, a former Army Ranger and Gulf War veteran, achieved his goal running 405 miles from the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base to Key West.

He optimistically hoped to complete the personal challenge in eight days. However, it took more than 12 days to reach the 0-mile marker on U.S. 1 which happened Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.

But his mission was about more than mileage. He wanted to honor Air Force Reserve Capt. Jamie Brunette, also of Tampa, who committed suicide in February and to raise awareness of veteran suicide and PTSD.

In addition, Estrella wanted to raise the visibility of two organizations helping veterans, Hope for the Warriors, a non-profit organization that provides veterans services, and the Elk Institute for Psychological Health and Performance where veterans and active-duty military can obtain free help with PTSD.

Veterans can get help by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, go online to chat live or text message to 838255.

Airman’s Suicide Spurs Run from Tampa to Key West

Jamie Brunette, an Air Force Reserve captain and Afghanistan War veteran, killed herself in her car February 9, 2015 in Tampa. Photo courtesy of Jamie Brunette Facebook.

Jamie Brunette, an Air Force Reserve captain and Afghanistan War veteran, killed herself in her car February 9, 2015 in Tampa. Photo courtesy of Jamie Brunette Facebook.

Air Force Reserve Captain Jamie Brunette is described by friends as a vivacious athlete with a huge smile who loved people and loved to run.

Malia Spranger, an Air Force Reserve colonel, served with Brunette, was her friend and business partner. They were going to open a fitness center together in March.

But Brunette, an Afghanistan War veteran, took her own life February 9, 2015.

“She was (like) a daughter to my husband and I,” Spranger said. “She is obviously terribly missed by so many people out there.”

Jamie’s “raspy laugh” is what her roommate, Heather Milner, misses most.

“The way I remember Jamie is being super goofy. She was always dancing around and smiling and laughing. Like, every day was always a good day,” Milner said.

Milner was among the dozens of friends, airmen and community members standing outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base to honor the war veteran and support “The Run for Jamie.”

Gulf War veteran and former Ranger Alex Estrella holds onto the photo of Jamie at the kick-off ceremony outside MacDill Air Force Base's main gate for his 405-mile run to Key West.

Gulf War veteran and former Ranger Alex Estrella holds onto the photo of Jamie at the kick-off ceremony outside MacDill Air Force Base’s main gate for his 405-mile run to Key West.

Alex Estrella after the start of his 405-mile trek to raise awareness about PTSD and veteran suicide. Photo by: Valerie Bogle Photography

Alex Estrella after the start of his 405-mile trek to raise awareness about PTSD and veteran suicide. Photo by: Valerie Bogle Photography

The solo run from Tampa to Key West was the idea of former Army Ranger and Gulf War veteran Alex Estrella, 56. Although the Tampa resident never met the promising young airman, Brunette’s suicide inspired him to do the 405-mile run to honor her, raise awareness about veteran suicide and post-traumatic stress.

“For those vets out there that may be suffering or something, speak to someone,” Estrella said just prior to starting his journey May 21, 2015. “Hope is a key word for me and God willing I’m going to finish this run for Jamie.”

Wearing combat boots, a 40-pound rucksack and escorted by Tampa Police volunteers, Estrella left MacDill hoping to make it to Key West in eight days. Within a few miles, the 90 degree temperatures forced him to change into running shoes and shed the rucksack.

Checking in with Estrella at the eight-day mark found him walking alone on Tamiami Trail about to turn south to Homestead just over halfway to his goal.

Hampered by the heat, blisters and cramping muscles, Estrella chuckled when asked if he considered abandoning his quest.

“I have 22 reasons why not to give up and those of course are the 22 vets a day that take their lives,” Estrella said.

Alex Estrella wore combat boots for the first few miles of his run but blisters forced him to switch to running shoes.

Alex Estrella wore combat boots for the first few miles of his run but blisters forced him to switch to running shoes.

According to the Veterans Administration, 22 veterans on average commit suicide every day. And that number only reflects those in the VA system. Those who have never used VA, along with active-duty military, reservists and National Guard are not included.

Despite his first chase vehicle having to turn back and getting only a couple of hours rest each night, Estrella continues.

Midday Thursday, he optimistically estimated that he will reach Key West on Sunday, May 31, 2015.

In addition to honoring Brunette, Estrella also hopes to raise the visibility of two organizations helping veterans, Hope for the Warriors and the Elk Institute for Psychological Health and Performance.

Veterans can get help by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, go online to chat live or text message to 838255.

A couple dozen friends, airmen and veterans turned out for the start of The Run for Jamie just outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa.

A couple dozen friends, airmen and veterans turned out for the start of The Run for Jamie just outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, on May 21, 2015.

Senate Passes the Veterans Suicide Prevention Act

Chairman Jeff Miller calling for a vote to subpoena the VA Secretary's emails pertaining to an "alternate wait list" at the Phoenix VA Medical Center.

Chairman Jeff Miller calling for a vote to subpoena the VA Secretary’s emails pertaining to an “alternate wait list” at the Phoenix VA Medical Center.

A bill aimed at improving veteran accessibility to mental  health care has passed the US Senate and now only needs President Obama’s signature to become law.

The US House passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act on January 12, 2015 for a second time.

The House also passed the Clay Hunt SAV Act in early December 2014. But the bill was killed in the Senate by outgoing, US Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma.

The bipartisan legislation not only embraces new ideas to improve the effectiveness of VA mental health care it also requires annual reviews of program effectiveness.

“The Senate did the right thing today by passing the Clay Hunt SAV Act. The bill is an important step toward helping stop the epidemic of veteran suicides,” said US Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in a news release.

Veteran Suicide: A Look Into the Numbers

veteran_suicide_crisisline_graphicThere’s a statistic on veteran suicide that is repeated often: VA officials say an average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day. But what is not widely known about that statistic is that a majority of veterans committing suicide are age 50 or older and did not serve in combat.

For our series Off the Base, WUSF reporter Bobbie O’Brien talked with Dr. Larry Schonfeld,  a professor in the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy at the University of South Florida’s Florida Mental Health Institute.

Schonfeld is a psychologist who specializes in research on veterans and aging and knows it can be difficult to gather  data on veteran suicide.

“I think we’re still trying to understand what the statistics mean and where they’re coming from,” Schonfeld said. “I don’t know what they’ve done as to age distribution but in the general population and the veteran population the older white male becomes the higher risk population for committing suicide.”

But he said just because they’re not the majority, suicide among younger veterans is a growing concern.

“We’ have younger people committing suicide and this country has got to do something for those who have served our country so well,” Schonfeld said.

He said it’s important to find the reasons behind veteran suicide so effective treatment and prevention programs can be developed. Yet, Schonfeld said he and other researchers in academia are challenged to find Post 9-11 veterans willing to participate in research studies.

What is certain, according to Schonfeld and others, the need for mental health services by Post 9-11 veterans will only grow over the coming decades.

“I think that’s absolutely certain that the wave,” Schonfeld said. “Because of the age of the population, if they don’t get the help now, we’re going to be seeing it later. It’s in a sense a time bomb in itself.”

Information on VA Suicide Prevention including warning signs and links to resources are on the Crisis Line website. If you need immediate help as a veteran, a family member or friend, call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 to talk to someone.

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