How the VA Cooked the Suicide Books
The agency hides long waits for veterans in mental-health crises.
by Jillian Kay Melchoir
The National Review, June 9, 2014
SPOKANE, Wash. — Luke Senescall, 26, sat in the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center “holding his mouth to keep from screaming,” his father, Steve, recalls. “Tears are busting out of his face, and he’s bobbing his head down to his knees and back up and down to his knees and back up. . . .
I should never have taken him to the VA hospital. I should have just brought him home. . . .
I took him there, and basically I signed a death sentence for him.”
After two years in the Navy, spent in part working on an aircraft carrier, Luke had been diagnosed as bipolar. Despite his mental illness and struggles with alcohol, the young veteran was trying to pull his life together, his father tells National Review Online. But when Luke desperately sought help from the VA, the psychiatrist spoke harshly to him, set an appointment two weeks out, and sent the Senescalls on their way, Steve says.
Speaking quickly and furiously, Steve continues: “If you can imagine someone coming in to the emergency room with a compound fracture and a bone sticking out of their leg or arm, and the doctor says, ‘What are you doing here bothering me? You don’t have an appointment. Come back and make an appointment; come back, and I’ll take care of you.’ This boy was broken and crying in front of [the VA’s psychiatrist], and he didn’t even bother to want to take the time to help [Luke].”
Luke, still distressed, went on a walk, and VA records show that he again reached out to the medical center by phone, speaking briefly to a nurse practitioner and stating that he was “not okay.” As the night settled in, Steve and his family couldn’t reach Luke, and they began calling hospitals and jails. Finally, Jake — the big brother and fellow Navy man whom Luke adored and emulated — went to Luke’s house.
Steve says a friend who was with Jake at Luke’s house “saw the garage door open, and he goes, ‘Oh no,’ because the garage door is never open. And he walked into the garage, and there was my son. And he came out, and he yelled out at Jake, yelled, ‘Call 911!’ And Jake ran past him as he said, ‘No, don’t go in there!’ and Jake goes in there anyway, and he finds him. He grabs him, but Luke had already passed. And that was very disturbing for my son – very, very disturbing.” On July 7, 2008 — about three hours after unsuccessfully seeking in-person help at the VA medical center — Luke had hanged himself with an extension cord.
As the VA scandal continues to make headlines, the media has paid much attention to the long wait times and their effects on veterans’ physical health, as well as to the efforts of VA employees to cover up their shortcomings.
But the VA has also repeatedly failed to provide prompt and adequate mental-health services to veterans. Furthermore, records dating back as far as 2008 call into question whether the VA has tried to cover up veteran suicides and game the numbers for the scheduling of mental-health services.
To be sure, in any individual instance, it’s unclear whether poor performance at the VA resulted in a suicide that would otherwise have been prevented. Nonetheless, the statistics on veteran suicides are staggering: Though veterans are 13 percent of the total U.S. population, they account for around 20 percent of the nation’s suicide deaths. In February 2013, the VA estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide each day — one in five of whom are enrolled in the VA’s health-care system.
“The health and well-being of the men and women who have served in uniform is the highest priority for VA,” a VA spokesperson told NRO. “We have made strong progress, but we must do more. Every Veteran suicide is a tragic outcome and regardless of the numbers or rates, even one Veteran suicide is one too many. VA is committed to ensuring the safety of our Veterans, especially when they are in crisis.”
The VA has taken some steps to address the veteran-suicide crisis: Since President Obama took office, the VA’s mental-health spending has increased by nearly 55 percent, rising to $6.969 billion in 2014. Obama also signed an executive order in 2012 that included the creation of Veterans Crisis Line, which the VA says has saved more than 37,000 veterans in crisis. The VA has also begun an effort to partner with community non-VA mental-health providers, especially in rural communities, and to fill some of the vacant mental-health positions.
Nevertheless, there’s significant room for improvement, says Jacqueline Maffucci, the research director at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “Our members tell us that they’re satisfied with their care when they can get in the door, but getting in the door is the hardest part,” she says. “IAVA has real questions about whether the VA understands the physical and mental-health-care demands of today’s vets and has asked for the resources to meet those demands.”
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