A recent story on the high number of suicides among veterans contained a tragic statistic. According to Rep. Bob Filner, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, more than 58,000 Vietnam veterans have taken their own lives -- more than were lost in the entire Vietnam War.
The Veterans Health Administration estimates 1,000 suicides per year among veterans receiving care with the VHA and as many as 5,000 per year among all living veterans. In short, suicide among veterans is close to epidemic levels.
This may have been something of a hidden secret in years past, a problem swept under the rug out of ignorance, embarrassment or alarm. Finally, however, the government has decided to take action.
Congress recently passed a suicide prevention bill on a vote of 417-0. The bill comes largely as a result of recent reports of increasing suicides and mental health problems among troops who have been involved in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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The bill will require mental health training for VA staff, screening for suicide risk factors for veterans who receive VA care, referral of at-risk veterans for counseling and treatment and designate a suicide prevention counselor at each VA medical facility. The bill also supports outreach and education for veterans and their families, peer support counseling and research into suicide prevention.
"Unfortunately, suicide prevention has become a major part of our responsibility to both active duty and to our veterans, " said Filner.
While, as the congressman notes, the need for such treatment is regrettable, we are relieved that the government is taking steps to address the problem. With thousands of troops engaged in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the VHA must be prepared for an onslaught of veterans with serious mental problems.
The nature of the war, itself, in both Iraq and Afghanistan might contribute to those problems. As in Vietnam, troops face an amorphous enemy that often is impossible to distinguish from the civilian population. Troops are in constant danger from hidden mines and booby-traps.
It is no surprise, then, that the troops suffer mental distress when they come home, especially as they try to readjust to life among friends and family who are not likely to fully understand what the veterans have been through.
We hope that this bill and efforts by the VHA will help alleviate this problem and reduce the rate of suicide among all veterans. As we learn more about the combat wounds that aren't immediately visible, perhaps we will become more adept at treating them.
Bill passed by Congress would increase mental health care for combat veterans.
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