Letter on New York Times Veteran Suicide Story
To the Editor:
Your article about the post-deployment suicide rate in a single Marine battalion does a disservice to the dedicated staff engaged in suicide prevention at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
For a forthcoming book about the V.A., I have observed and interviewed its health care providers, patients — many of whom tell me that the V.A. saved their lives — and members of patients’ families in V.A. facilities throughout the country. I have been tremendously impressed by the V.A.’s systematic efforts to help patients cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury of the sort highlighted in your profile of these Marine veterans.
Readers of The Times are, unfortunately, left with the impression that the V.A.’s mental health outreach and counseling, suicide prevention hotlines, and peer support groups are either inadequate or inaccessible. From what I have seen, this is not the case, and such programs, when properly funded, are working well. In fact, V.A. staff members encourage just the kind of self-help and patient solidarity praised as a lifesaver in your article.
Let’s not forget one very relevant fact: These men are casualties of war. The tragic suicides among them are not the product of bad patient experiences — real or perceived — at the V.A. They are the product of chronic, hard-to-treat conditions acquired or worsened during their previous employment with the Department of Defense.
There is another letter by a social worker Anne Rettenberg. She actually urges Veterans who are suicidal not to seek care at the VHA. This ignores a key comment in the original times article itself which quotes Craig J. Bryan, a psychologist and an Iraq war veteran, who runs the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah. Bryan commented that “the V.A. has done more to try to prevent suicide than anyone has done in the history of the human race.” Mr. Bryan, , added: “But most veterans who kill themselves do not go to treatment or give up. They are not interested. That is the challenge.” Indeed it is. A challenge in every area of mental health and in every place that treats those with mental health problems.