American Legion to VA: prevent suicide with fewer pills, more people

Matt Saintsing
July 13, 2018 - 4:58 pm

U.S. Army Reserve Photo by Sgt. Demetrio Montoya

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Hiring qualified professionals at the Department of Veterans Affairs has fallen to a snail’s pace, and a new report from the American Legion suggests that could be deadly for veterans dealing with mental health issues. 

The 24-page document, titled “Veteran Suicide: A White Paper Report,” urges Congress “to improve VA’s tedious hiring process and increase VA’s recruitment, retention, and relocation budget” so they can better staff facilities with mental health professionals.

The suicide rate among veterans continues to be higher than that of the general population. In June, the VA released a report analyzing a decade of suicide data finding that 20 veterans a day die by suicide and the rate of suicides is increasing for those who do not use VA services. In other words, going to the VA might not be great, but it can literally be a lifesaver. 

“The American Legion remains deeply concerned by the high suicide rate among service members and veterans and is committed to finding a way to help end this public health crisis,” according to the report. 

This information comes a month after the VA's Office of Inspector General released a report of their own that found more than 3,000 unfilled jobs across VA. The most common factors listed are a lack of qualified professionals, noncompetitive salaries compared to the private-sector, and a high staff turnover rate. 

The white-paper states VA health care is essential to address what the Legion deems is a “public health crisis.” And that those services should be expanded to include non-prescription treatment for PTS, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and the impacts sexual trauma has on a service member. 

The report also notes the over-prescription of benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that can relieve anxiety, insomnia, and agitation, but is also known to induce and suicidal thoughts. 

A study highlighted in the report found that 43 percent of service members who attempted suicide between 2008 and 2010 had taken psychotropic drugs. 

“The link between certain dangerous prescription medications and veteran suicide should be recognized, and steps should be taken to reduce unnecessary prescriptions,” according to the report. 

One reason why veterans turn to prescription drugs and drop out of in-patient care programs, the report says, is due to a lack of availability and recognition of alternative treatments. But the report also praises VA for its efforts in integrative health and wellness programs, which offer non-prescription therapies, and calls for an expansion of the pilot program. 

"Many veterans have reported great success with veteran-centric treatments such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, martial arts and other forms of complementary and alternative therapies,” the report adds.

The report does not, however, mention marijuana as a safe alternative to prescription drugs. Study after study has found that access to cannabis reduced opioid use and the Legion has been at the forefront in calling on the VA to research the medical benefits of pot on veterans. 

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