Each day, nearly 22 former servicemen and servicewomen commit suicide.
In January, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that suicide rates for younger veterans, ages 18 to 29, had increased significantly from 2009 to 2011. The suicide rate for male veterans increased by 44 percent, while the rate among female veterans increased by 11 percent.
Despite these alarming statistics, the VA found “no clear change” in the suicide rate of veterans using their own facilities.
What is clear: When it comes to treating the invisible wounds of war, our veterans are being ignored.
Shocking failures by the VA, including the inaccurate reports of veteran suicides, have recently come to light in mainstream media and in public hearings. At least 19 veteran deaths have been caused by delayed diagnoses and treatment at VA hospitals and clinics, a common occurrence due to the falsification of patient wait times and other unethical acts, according to recent findings reported by the Washington Examiner.
In 2007 during his presidential campaign, Barack Obama said, “When we fail to keep faith with our veterans, the bond between our nation and our nation’s heroes becomes frayed. When a veteran is denied care, we are all dishonored.”
This dishonor is widespread, and it worsened on Feb. 27 when the Senate rejected a veterans bill that would expand the benefits of former servicemembers.
The Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act (S 1982) was introduced by Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Unfortunately, it needed four more votes to advance. Cost was a major factor in its failure to pass, as well as a concern that the bill would increase the wait times at VA facilities.
It is the American Counseling Association’s priority that a particular component of the bill remains intact.
Waiting in the wings to help veterans is a group of qualified mental-health professionals that are eager to serve their country. These are our nation’s Licensed Professional Counselors.
In 2006, President George W. Bush signed PL 109-461, which authorized the VA to hire LPCs. Nearly eight years later, LPCs are still not fully utilized by the VA. Despite numerous meetings, letters, recommendations and calls for action to the VA, LPCs continue to be shut out of the VA’s workforce. LPCs are excluded through the VA’s training program, which is operated under the Office of Academic Affiliations. For several years, the American Counseling Association and our sister groups have called on the VA to fully integrate the recruitment and utilization of LPCs into this program so that we can channel more mental-health clinicians into the VA’s career pipeline. Our nation is in desperate need for these clinicians, but despite our efforts, the VA is still resistant to implement this rational solution.
Members from both sides of the aisle in Congress have expressed support for mandating that the VA fully integrate LPCs through legislation. Several different bills have been introduced that call on the VA to place LPCs into its training program, and Sanders’ bill is one of them.
The American Counseling Association is grateful to Sanders for including our LPCs provision in his bill, and we are equally grateful to Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., for including our section in his amendment to S 1982. There is much concern about the final cost of the bill, but it is vital to draw attention to the LPCs section, which was scored as cost neutral. This means our solution would not cost the American taxpayers a dime. To do nothing would cost our country 22 veterans a day.
With the grim statistics of veteran suicides hanging over our country, it is clear that solutions need to be implemented. Sidelining 40 percent of the nation’s mental-health workforce during a mental-health crisis is a recipe for disaster.
As Sanders works to try his bill again, we urge that our provision is kept intact throughout Congress’ debates. Fully integrating LPCs will not increase the deficit. It will not cost our government any money. It will provide more qualified mental-health professionals to aid veterans in need. It will bring honor back to the way we treat our country’s heroes.
Art Terrazas is director of government affairs for the American Counseling Association.