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Witness Testimony of Hon. James P. Moran, a Representative in Congress from the State of Virginia

Mr. Chairman, members of this subcommittee, I want to thank you for holding this important hearing today and commend the subcommittee for the work that it has already undertaken on behalf of our nation’s veterans.

The problem of suicide among our veterans is one of the most serious issues that we have to address as we care for our older veterans and prepare for a new generation of returning soldiers.

The Centers for Disease Control recently released a troubling statistic:  Each year, approximately 115,000 veterans attempt suicide. This accounts for nearly 20 percent of all suicide attempts, yet, the veteran population only accounts for 11% of the entire population.

The disproportionate prevalence of suicide among veterans suggests that, in addition to our overall national strategy on suicide prevention, particular attention must be paid to preventing suicide among this special population.

Unfortunately, I expect this trend to continue as more of our brave men and women return from multiple deployments with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.  As we have learned, a staggering 20 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq are experiencing depression, sleep deprivation, anxiety and other symptoms of PTSD. 

I am proud that this Congress has already acknowledged the growing problem of PTSD and dedicated substantial resources to it.  Still, I believe, as scientific evidence suggests, that as our returning soldiers are increasingly susceptible to PTSD, they are at an elevated risk for suicide attempts.  

My bill, the “Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline Act of 2007”, would create a 24-hour national toll-free hotline to assist our nation’s veterans in crisis.  It would be staffed predominantly by veterans, trained to appropriately and responsibly answer calls from other veterans.  This hotline would follow the models of the National Suicide, Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence hotlines, where volunteers trained in active listening and crisis de-escalation respond to a variety of crisis calls.

I believe that this cultural competency – the ability to connect to another veteran who understands best what the caller may be experiencing – can make a real difference in crisis counseling.  It is difficult to connect on this level with anyone else, even trained doctors or other professionals.

To build this capacity nationwide, my bill calls for a 3-year, competitively-awarded grant for $2.5 million in the next three fiscal years.  The funding will be made available to a qualified non-profit crisis center to establish, publicize, and operate the hotline, including developing curricula to train and certify volunteers.

We have reached out the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and are encouraged that the VHA is undertaking new efforts to establish a suicide hotline and address mental health needs.  Their plan is to divert callers from the National Suicide Prevention Hotline to a VA facility, staffed by doctors, psychologists and other certified counseling professionals.

On the surface the VHA’s effort may appear duplicative of my proposal, but there are some very important differences that I feel need to be highlighted. 

First, my legislation requires that the people answering the phones, those dealing directly with the veterans, are veterans themselves.  There are times when speaking with someone who has the cultural competence and empathy to really understand the experiences of veterans in crisis can help make the difference between successful integration into mental health treatment and failure to reach a veteran in dire need of services.

Second, The VHA has many responsibilities for providing the highest quality of health care for our veterans.  However, they have experienced stretched budgets and staffing shortages in recent years.  Because the demands placed on any veterans’ hotline may be great as our nation redeploys from Iraq in the future, I have concern that the VHA may not have the capability and commitment to the hotline that a non-profit organization dedicated to suicide prevention as its sole purpose might be able to provide. 

Third, there are times when a person in crisis doesn’t want to talk to a doctor – they want to talk to a volunteer. Mentally ill individuals all face societal stigma associated with seeking care. Research from the Air Force’s suicide prevention efforts suggests that this is perceived to be even more profound in the military and veteran communities.  Fear of “the system”, of an unfriendly mental health establishment, and of potential job-related consequences keep many from seeking care. 

One of the motivations behind the National Suicide hotline and this bill is to give people in crisis another option – an anonymous hotline that can respond to their immediate crisis.

To conclude, our vets deserve as much support when they return from combat as they receive while in battle.  Too many of our veterans are struggling to make the difficult adjustment back to society and need someone they can talk to, someone who’s walked a mile in their shoes. 

This legislation will offer a caring voice at the end of the line when it feels like there’s no where else to turn.