Trump Orders DoD, VA and Other Agencies to Probe Link Between Pandemic and Suicides

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Donald Trump stands on the Truman Balcony
U.S. President Donald Trump stands on the Truman Balcony after returning to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, October 05, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty)

President Donald Trump has ordered the military, the Department of Veterans Affairs and other government agencies to come up with a plan within 45 days to address mental health issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that may lead to suicide.

In an executive order issued Monday, Trump, now a coronavirus patient himself, said the COVID-19 outbreak, which has killed more than 210,000 Americans, has "exacerbated mental and behavioral health conditions as a result of stress from prolonged lockdown orders, lost employment and social isolation."

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"We must enhance the ability of the federal government, as well as its state, local and tribal partners" to join in an all-of-government effort "to appropriately address these ongoing mental and behavioral health concerns," Trump said.

He ordered the establishment of a "Coronavirus Mental Health Working Group" to develop a plan within 45 days to "prevent suicides, drug-related deaths, and poor behavioral-health outcomes, particularly those that are induced or made worse by prolonged state and local COVID-19 shutdown orders."

The Cabinet-level working group will be led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, or his designate, and Brooke Rollins, the acting director of the White House Domestic Policy Council office, or her designate, according to the order.

The working group will include representatives from the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Justice, Labor and other government agencies with a mandate to focus on vulnerable populations and "individuals potentially affected by domestic violence or physical abuse."

On Tuesday, the VA said that Dr. Richard Stone, the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, will serve as its representative on the working group. Other agencies have yet to name their representatives.

The executive order was dated Oct. 3, while Trump was being treated for COVID-19 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. It was issued Monday before he left Walter Reed to return to the White House.

The VA and DoD already have the President's Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) task force, led by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, aimed at curbing the estimated 20 veteran suicides each day.

Trump's executive order followed a Sept. 27 Associated Press report that suicides in the military had increased by as much as 20% this year compared to the same period in 2019.

In its annual report on suicides in the military for 2019, the DoD reported Oct. 1 that the suicide rate for service members in 2019 -- 25.9 per 100,000 troops -- reached the highest level since the Pentagon first began closely monitoring self-inflicted deaths in 2000.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and professional health care organizations have issued warnings and reports on potential links between the mental stress brought on by the pandemic and the increased risk of suicide.

In August, the CDC warned that the pandemic "has been associated with mental health challenges related to the morbidity and mortality caused by the disease and to mitigation activities, including the impact of physical distancing and stay-at-home orders."

"Symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States during April-June of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019," it added.

In the last week of June, an estimated 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use, the CDC said.

Also in August, the Mayo Clinic reported that "the emotional and psychological impacts of the pandemic can lead to feelings of hopelessness and thoughts about suicide."

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

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