VA Struggles to Curb 'Parking Lot' Suicides at Its Own Facilities

Suicide prevention. (U.S. Air Force illustration by Airman 1st Class Kathryn R.C. Reaves)
Suicide prevention. (U.S. Air Force illustration by Airman 1st Class Kathryn R.C. Reaves)

The VA's top health care official is asking Americans for help in addressing the crisis of veteran suicides.

"I wish it was as simple as me saying I could do more patrols in a parking lot that would stop this," Dr. Richard Stone, the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, said Wednesday of the department efforts to curb veteran suicides and suicide attempts that often occur at its own facilities.

Stone made the remark in response to questions from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee about three recent suicides: two over the weekend at Georgia VA facilities and one Tuesday at an Austin, Texas, VA clinic.

Stone told the Committee that more than 260 suicide attempts had been recorded at VA facilities. He did not give a time period for when the attempts were made, but said VA staff had intervened in about 240 of them and were able to save lives.

Related: Military.com's Suicide Prevention Resources

That left about 20 where the veteran did not ask for help, or the intervention was unsuccessful, he said. Between October 2017 and November 2018, 19 veterans died by suicide on the grounds of VA medical facilities, according to a Washington Post report.

Often, the veteran will leave a note saying "I've come here to the [VA] campus because I know you'll take care of me and I know you'll take care of my family," Stone told the Committee.

To curb what he called the "epidemic" of about 20 veteran suicides daily, the nation as a whole must ask itself where society had failed these veterans -- a question without a simple answer, Stone said.

One possible way was to get more Americans involved, he added.

"If you've got a cellphone in your hand, take that cell phone out and put in the following number: 1-800-273-8255."

That's the Veterans Crisis Line manned 24-7 by specially-trained responders.

It's not just for veterans, but for anyone who may know a veteran they believe may be in crisis, he said.

"Most lay people say, 'I don't know to do'" in a situation where they may know of a veteran having thoughts of suicide, he said, but reaching out and asking for advice "could stop a suicide and save a life."

When asked by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, the ranking member on the Committee, what Congress could do to help, Stone suggested changing the law that makes Guard and Reserve members who were never activated ineligible for VA care.

Of the estimated 20 veteran suicides daily on average, about 14 are among veterans who have never been in contact with the VA, Stone said. Of those 14, about three are Guard and Reserve members who were never activated, he said.

Currently, "they aren't a veteran," Stone said, but "if we can take and extend emergency services to [those with] other than honorable discharges, we sure ought to be able to offer those services to never-activated Guardsmen and Reservists," Stone said.

The first of the three recent suicides at VA facilities occurred last Friday in the parking lot of the Carl Vinson Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Dublin, Georgia, the VA said.

The second on Saturday reportedly involved a 68-year-old veteran who shot himself outside the Atlanta VA Medical Center, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. On Tuesday, a veteran shot himself in the waiting room of the Austin, Texas, VA clinic, KXXV reported.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, cited the three suicides in his opening remarks at the hearing Wednesday.

"I am in touch with the VA as investigations into each incident are ongoing, but these are tragedies that we hear about far too often," he said in a prepared statement.

"While we have taken a number of steps to address and prevent veteran suicide, this weekend's tragic deaths clearly indicate that we must do better," Isakson said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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