US Not Even at 'Sputnik' Stage in Dealing With Veterans' Mental Health: Wilkie

Since 2009, more than 100,000 homeless veterans have been provided with housing -- but about 38,000 more still need a permanent place to live. ((Getty Images/Debbie Helbing)
Since 2009, more than 100,000 homeless veterans have been provided with housing -- but about 38,000 more still need a permanent place to live. (Debbie Helbing/Getty Images)

The nation is now only in the rudimentary stages of addressing the mental health issues at the root of veterans' suicides and homelessness, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said Friday.

We are not even at the Sputnik stage in this country when it comes to getting our arms around mental health issues," Wilkie said, in a comparison he has used before.

His reference in an address to the annual conference of the National Coalition For Homeless Veterans (NCHV) was to the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of the 22-inch diameter Sputnik 1, the first Earth satellite.

Wilkie said the Department of Veterans Affairs, working with the departments of Labor and Housing and Urban Development, had made considerable progress in getting homeless veterans off the streets.

The homeless rate among veterans has been cut in half since 2010, and is down another 5% as of last year, Wilkie said, but HUD estimates that about 40,000 veterans are still homeless on any given night.

"But there is another catastrophe that is no longer on the horizon, that you are meeting every day, and that is suicide among those who have worn the uniform," Wilkie said.

He again cited the grim statistic that has persisted for years: "every day 20 veterans take their lives," a rate 1.5 times that of the civilian population, according to the VA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wilkie noted that he is head of the "PREVENTS" task force, or President's Roadmap to Empower Veterans and the National Tragedy of Suicide, including the secretaries of Defense, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order in March setting up the task force, which was to report back within a year.

Wilkie said his new mission is daunting and requires more outreach at the state and local level in a "whole of government" approach to curbing the veteran suicide rate.

"If we don't do those things, then this will be just another task force," he said.

On veterans' homelessness, Wilkie said the VA's proposed budget of $220 billion included $1.1 billion to bolster existing efforts to get more veterans into safe housing.

In a later panel at the NCHV conference, Keith Harris, national director of Clinical Operations for VA homeless programs, said more progress on combating veteran homelessness is dependent on the successful implementation of the estimated $10-billion plus program to set up electronic health records that can be shared between the VA and the Department of Defense.

The new system will make it easier to reach veterans who might be at risk, Harris said, but there are still "unanswered questions" on how well compatible electronic health records will work.

In addition, "it will take 10 years nationally" to put the new system in place, Harris said.

According to the Coalition, "the nation's homeless veterans are predominantly male, with roughly 9% being female. The majority are single; live in urban areas; and suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders."

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

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