April 29, 2019

Chairman Takano Delivers Opening Remarks before First Hearing to Address Veteran Suicide this Congress

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (CA-41) delivered opening remarks before the full committee oversight hearing entitled “Tragic Trends: Suicide Prevention Among Veterans.” Below is a link to the video of the Chairman’s opening statement and his remarks as prepared:

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Good evening. I call this hearing to order.

First I would like to welcome our witnesses this evening:  Dr. Stone, from the Veterans Health Administration, Dr. from the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. McKeon from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Today’s hearing will be the first of many this Committee will hold as it begins the critical work to address veteran suicide. I think we can all agree how important it is to take care of our veterans which is why I have made ending veteran suicide my number one priority.

Sadly, America is facing a national public health crisis that demands urgency from Congress, the administration, medical and clinical professionals, veteran service organizations and veterans themselves.

This morning, we lost another veteran to suicide at a VA hospital. Two weeks ago, three veterans committed suicide on VA property in just five days. Seven veterans have ended their lives on VA campuses this year.

It’s clear we are not doing enough to support veterans in crisis. While these incidents may be alarming, they do not tell the full story of veteran suicide in our country. It is harmful to veterans and overly simplistic to solely blame VA for these tragedies. We must come together as a nation to address this crisis.    

Too many Americans have been personally touched by this troubling trend—for me, it was my own uncle, a Vietnam veteran, who died by suicide.

Each day 20 veterans, servicemembers, reservists, and members of the National Guard die by suicide.

One veteran lost to suicide is one too many. But 20 deaths a day -- totaling more than 7,300 deaths per year is unacceptable. That’s 1,800 more deaths per year than the 5,429 servicemembers who have been killed in action since 2001.

Both numbers are surprising and further evidence of a frustrating and persistent problem that we’ve failed to adequately address.

When you examine the statistics, the barriers to access many veterans face become very clear. Only 6.1 of those deaths are veterans accessing services at VA. 10.6 deaths a day are veterans not using VA at all, and 3.8 current active duty or members of the National Guard.

We all have a responsibility to act because there’s no excuse for failing these veterans here at home.

My Republican colleague, Ranking Member Roe, often says we haven’t “moved the needle” far enough to reduce veteran suicide. He’s right. That number has held steady at 20 deaths a day since 2014-- far too long. It’s time for Congress to look at this crisis with fresh eyes.

In 2015, Congress passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act, but this well intentioned effort hasn’t done enough. Recently, I met with several members of Clay Hunt’s unit, who identified the specific challenges they faced as they transitioned out of the military.

We need to understand why this legislation hasn’t done more to prevent suicides. We need to expand our understanding of mental health among veterans. We need to commit to providing the resources needed to implement a comprehensive plan.

Most importantly, Americans must hear from and listen to our veterans. We need to hear from veterans who have attempted suicide, understand their circumstances, and find out what they believe worked and what failed.

These veterans have a story to share that can tell us something about our attempt to address suicide and how responsive government can be to their situation.

This committee will not be indifferent to the problems veterans face nor will we turn a blind eye to the many causes that lead to veterans committing suicide. And I’m glad we could all come together today to begin to tackle this important issue.

Ultimately, it’s up to all of us to reduce and prevent veteran suicide because this is not a problem VA can solve alone. We know that dedicated doctors, nurses, and VA employees have saved over 240 veterans from committing suicide on VA campuses in recent years. VA briefs me on each suicide at a VA facility, and there’s still so much we don’t know. We must involve partners at the federal, state, and local levels and do a better job of supporting veterans in need regardless of whether that need is clinical or social.

By supporting clinically effective programs and increasing access to programs that mitigate the impact of concerns -- be they financial, marital, substance abuse related, or physical health -- veterans will feel the support they seek.

VA must also ensure every interaction it has, not just in a clinical setting, makes veterans feel supported. One example from VFW struck me when I was reading the statements for the record from the VSOs:

And I quote: “The VFW is working with a veteran who was rushed to a VA hospital during a mental health crisis caused by untreated bipolar disorder and depression. The veteran was admitted to the medical center’s inpatient mental health care clinic for two weeks, despite not being eligible for VA health care. VA saved his life, but now he has a $20,000 bill.

His mental health crisis was exacerbated by unemployment and his inability to provide for his family.

With proper treatment he has been able to return to work, but still lacks the resources to pay the VA bill. The VFW is working on having his bill waived, but he will never return to VA if he has another mental health crisis.”

This is just one more testament to what we already know—when a veteran is faced with the sky-high cost of medical care, it can be a significant barrier to getting the help they need.

To really combat this crisis we will have to change our mission. We must reexamine our approach to suicide prevention, exhaust our research possibilities, break the stigma faced by those seeking mental health services, and expand the healthcare and support we offer veterans. Like all of those in this room, I believe Americans are ready to meet this challenge.

Countering this crisis will require us to shine a national spotlight on veteran suicide. There is still so much we do not know. We need to better understand the root causes driving veteran suicide, hear from the families who have lost loved ones, and listen to the clinicians and social workers who are on the front lines battling to end veteran suicide.

As Americans, we are proud of the service and sacrifice veterans have made for our country, but a polite “Thank You for Your Service” isn’t enough for our veterans in crisis. Instead, we must thank and honor our veterans with action, work together to deliver top quality healthcare, provide community support, and ensure we offer a stable transition out of military service and into quality, sustainable employment.

Truly thanking veterans for their service means helping them when they need it most and rise above political opportunism to support veterans in crisis. It is my hope that together, we can curb this crisis.

Before I recognize Ranking Member Roe I’d like to point out that May is Mental Health Awareness Month and we all have to do our part.  I encourage every member of this Committee to record a suicide prevention PSA to highlight VA’s Be There campaign.

As Wounded Warrior Project pointed out, “… if a treatment program does not offer a family or caregiver component, and warriors go through clinical processes then return home, it may leave the family or caregiver to feel left in the dark about what occurred.”

We should be doing all we can to ensure family members and caregivers not only feel supported but have access to much needed resources as they help their loved one recover.

In addition, I would encourage all of you to meet with both veterans who are suicide survivors and speak with families who have lost loved ones to suicide to better understand how we can work to end this crisis.

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Any veteran, family member or friend concerned about a veteran’s mental health can contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. Find out more about how you can Be There for veterans in crisis at www.BeThereForVeterans.com.