US & World

Obama signs executive order directing Veterans Affairs to expand mental health services, suicide prevention efforts

EL PASO, Texas - President Barack Obama signed an executive order Friday directing the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand mental health services and suicide prevention efforts.

Stars and Stripes and the El Paso Times first reported on the executive order Thursday.

The president will make the announcement in a speech to troops at Fort Bliss Friday afternoon, the second anniversary of his last visit to the post at the end of major combat operations in Iraq.

"He will hold a private round-table meeting with some of our soldiers and families who have sought help in our behavioral health system. The president will also address our soldiers and families in a public gathering. We are gearing up for this event and will make sure that President Obama feels at home here at Fort Bliss – America's premier military installation," Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard wrote in his column Thursday in the Fort Bliss Monitor. Pittard is Fort Bliss' commanding general.

Obama's executive order states "As part of our ongoing efforts to improve all facets of military mental health, this order directs the Secretaries of Defense, Health and Human Services, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security to expand suicide prevention strategies and take steps to meet the current and future demand for mental health and substance abuse treatment services for veterans, service members, and their families."

The executive order also addresses suicide prevention. Read the full executive order here.

"By December 31, 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs, in continued collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services, shall expand the capacity of the Veterans Crisis Line by 50 percent to ensure that veterans have timely access, including by telephone, text, or online chat, to qualified, caring responders who can help address immediate crises and direct veterans to appropriate care. Further, the Department of Veterans Affairs shall ensure that any veteran identifying him or herself as being in crisis connects with a mental health professional or trained mental health worker within 24 hours. The Department of Veterans Affairs also shall expand the number of mental health professionals who are available to see veterans beyond traditional business hours," the executive order states."

The executive order also states that the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense will jointly develop and implement a national suicide prevention campaign focused on connecting veterans and service members to mental health services. The 12 month campaign, set to begin on begin on September 1, 2012, will focus on the positive benefits of seeking care and encourage veterans and service members to proactively reach out to support services.

Another component of the executive order is "To provide the best mental health and substance abuse prevention, education, and outreach support to our military and their family members, the Department of Defense shall review all of its existing mental health and substance abuse prevention, education, and outreach programs across the military services and the Defense Health Program to identify the key program areas that produce the greatest impact on quality and outcomes, and rank programs within each of these program areas using metrics that assess their effectiveness. By the end of Fiscal Year 2014, existing program resources shall be realigned to ensure that highly ranked programs are implemented across all of the military services and less effective programs are replaced."

One of those key programs is at Fort Bliss. Earlier this month Fort Bliss received the 2012 LivingWorks Award of Excellence for the post's suicide prevention efforts.

Fort Bliss has the lowest number of suicides of any major Army installation in the contiguous United States and the post is the first military installation to ever receive this prestigious award.

"We are personally committed to making sure all of our soldiers seek help whenever they need it. Seeking help takes courage and it is the right thing to do," Pittard wrote in a recent Fort Bliss Monitor column.

Soldiers who need help can call the 24-hour chaplain at 915-637-4265, the Team Bliss Operations Center at 915-744-1255, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or Military OneSource at 1-800-342-9647.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki in April announced that the VA would add about 1,600 mental health clinicians. That number would include nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers as well as nearly 300 support staff to its existing workforce of 20,590 mental health staff as part of an ongoing review of mental health operations, according to an April VA news release

"As the tide of war recedes, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to anticipate the needs of returning Veterans," Shinseki said in April. "History shows that the costs of war will continue to grow for a decade or more after the operational missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended. As more Veterans return home, we must ensure that all Veterans have access to quality mental health care."

"Mental health services must be closely aligned with Veterans' needs and fully integrated with health care facility operations," VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel said in April. "Improving access to mental health services will help support the current and future Veterans who depend on VA for these vital services."

Suicides among active-duty soldiers in July more than doubled from June, accelerating a trend throughout the military this year that has prompted Pentagon leaders to redouble efforts to solve a puzzling problem.

The Army, which is the only branch of the military that issues monthly press statements on suicides, said 26 active-duty soldiers killed themselves in July, compared with 12 in June. The July total was the highest for any month since the Army began reporting suicides by month in 2009, according to Lt. Col. Lisa Garcia, an Army spokeswoman.

The Marine Corps had eight suicides in July, up from six in June. The July figure was its highest monthly total of 2012 and pushed its total for the year so far to 32 – equal to the Marines' total for all of 2011. The Marines' July figure is being posted on its website but was provided first to The Associated Press.

The Air Force said it had six in July, compared with two in June. The Navy had four in July but its June figure was not immediately available.

The Army's suicide numbers have been higher than the other services, in part because it is substantially larger than the Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force. The Army also has had more members in combat over the past decade. It was the main ground force in Iraq and has a preponderance of the U.S. troops today in Afghanistan.

For the first seven months of 2012, the Army recorded 116 suicides among active-duty soldiers. If that pace were maintained through December the year's total would approach 200, compared with 167 for all of 2011.

"Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army," said Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the Army's vice chief of staff, who is spearheading his service's efforts to find ways to halt the surge in suicides.

"That said, I do believe suicide is preventable," Austin added. "To combat it effectively will require sophisticated solutions aimed at helping individuals to build resiliency and strengthen their life coping skills."

Suicidal behavior in the military is thought to be related to cumulative stress from combat duty, but it also is believed to be linked to a range of other pressures such as marital and financial problems as well as health issues.

Of the 26 active-duty soldiers who committed suicide in July, all were male and only two were officers, according to figures provided by the Army's office of public affairs. Thirteen were married, 10 were single and three were divorced. A breakdown of the deployment history of 14 of the 26 showed that six had never been deployed, seven had been deployed between one and three times, and one had been deployed six times.

So far this year the number of suicides in the military has surged beyond expectations, given that the pace of combat deployments has begun to slow. The Defense Department closely tracks suicides throughout the military but releases its figures only once a year. The Associated Press in June obtained an internal Defense Department document that revealed that there had been 154 suicides in the first 155 days of the year, though June 3. That marked the fastest pace of active-duty military suicides in the nation's decade of war.

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a private organization that provides support for military members and their families, said counseling and other forms of care for emotionally distraught military members is often too little, too late.

"Others never seek help out of fear over how others will view seeking treatment," the group said in a statement Thursday.

Pittard came under fire in late May by various people and organizations nationally for his comments about soldiers who commit suicide. Several websites posted a few sentences from Pittard's January Fort Bliss Monitor column when he talked about soldiers and suicide and not his full column on suicide.

"I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act. I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us," he wrote in the column. (Editor's Note: Read the full paragraph Pittard wrote in January at the bottom of this article)

A Fort Bliss spokesman said in May that Pittard did not face any disciplinary action for the comment. The comment could not be found in the online edition of that January issue in late May.

Pittard issued the following statement May 23 to ABC-7: On Suicide - A Retraction - In my commentary published January 19, 2012, I stated suicide was a selfish act. Thanks to many of you and your feedback, I have learned that this was a hurtful statement. I also realize that my statement was not in line with the Army's guidance regarding sensitivity to suicide. With my deepest sincerity and respect towards those whom I have offended, I retract that statement.

There are many reasons why a person may take his or her own life; it is very complex. Suicide is a serious problem, not only in our Army, but throughout our entire nation. Our efforts to prevent suicide at Fort Bliss are having a beneficial effect. We have lower than average suicide rates within FORSCOM. We have more than four times the number of Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) personnel than other Army installation, the most Master Resilience Trainers, 160 behavioral health providers, and inspiring stories every month of Soldiers who intervened when one of their battle buddies had suicidal ideations or attempts. Our Wellness Fusion Campus is unique within the Army and is the cornerstone of a deliberate, programmed and accountable installation-wide resilience campaign. Our goal is to create the most fit, healthy, and resilient community in America.

We must continue to do better each and every day, reaching out, encouraging and helping those in need. A person sometimes considers suicide when they lose hope about the future and they do not feel connected with others around them - a profound sense of hopelessness. We can all help by wrapping our arms around our fellow Soldiers and showing them a future that is positive and supportive. This takes both leadership and compassion. Leaders at all levels must continue with the intrusive, yet caring and compassionate, leadership that has become a part of our culture at Team Bliss. Battle buddies and leaders must stay vigilant and act when someone is in need. None of us are immune from needing help. All of us, at some point, need help for mental, emotional, or relationship stress. Please seek help - it is the right thing to do!

Pittard's full, original paragraph in the January column stated: Suicide - A Selfish Act - Wednesday (January 18), we lost a Fort Bliss Soldier to an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. I heard the tragic news as I walked out of a memorial service for another one of our Soldiers who decided to kill himself at home on Christmas Day so that his family would find him. Christmas will never be the same for his two young daughters he left behind. I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act.Soldiers who commit suicide leave their families, their buddies and their units to literally clean up their mess. There is nothing noble about suicide. I care about each and every one of our Soldiers, family members and civilians at Fort Bliss. I know there are a lot of people hurting out there, especially with the future Army personnel cuts on the horizon. If you are hurting mentally or emotionally, then seek and get help; but don?t resort to taking your own life. I am personally fed up with Soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.SEEK HELP! If you need help, please call 915-779-1800 or 800-273-TALK (8255). It is a confidential call. Please look after each other; please do not allow your buddy to make a rash decision that will have permanent life-ending consequences. Choose life.

The Associated Press contributed to this article

comments powered by Disqus