There are probably few jobs as stressful as running the Department of Veterans Affairs. And near the end of a march to raise awareness about the suicide deaths of soldiers and veterans, VA secretary Denis McDonough reflected on how he is dealing with his own mental health issues.
“I’m looking for help,” he said during a stop along the Gold Star Mothers Inc. March for Military Suicide Awareness on Saturday. “Whether it’s through priests, whether it’s through mental health professionals, I absolutely do. And that’s the kind of awareness that I consider essential to all of my health. I pay great attention to my heart health, physical health, fitness and that includes my mental health. “
McDonough, who served as White House Chief of Staff under former President Barack Obama, oversees a department with more than 400,000 employees and a budget of $ 243 billion, larger than any department. individual military.
Speaking to Military Times at the WWII Memorial, the third stop on the 2 mile walk that connects the Korean War Memorial to the Vietnam Memorial, McDonough spoke about what he does when he is facing mental health issues.
“What I’m doing is talking to our VA professionals,” he said. “You know, in the hallway. If something is bothering me, I can put them aside and seek advice. If I am struggling with something, I will often seek spiritual guidance through a priest or a nun. The point is, we need to make sure that we think of our mental health as part of our overall health, and make sure that we recognize that this ensures the best possible outcome,
“There is nothing to be embarrassed about,” he added. “Nothing has to be to feel something that will help ensure that everyone and vets in particular, so that they can live the life they have earned.”
For the Gold Star parents who lost children to suicide on this walk, raising awareness of the continued need to help prevent suicides was one of the main points of the walk.
The issue of military and veteran suicide “is just a given sometimes that people get a little numb,” said Lisa Heintz, whose son, Sr. Airman Joshua Reinwasser, committed suicide on Veterans Day, 2018, shortly after his 23rd birthday. “But I think coming here and seeing my son’s name and putting a face to what’s left” is a reminder that one suicide “affects so many people.”
Reinwasser was a loader / maintainer on the B-1 bomber and had developed lesions on his lungs from exposure to chemicals, his mother said. Struggling with an impending medical retirement from the job he loved, Reinwasser sought help from the VA and his medical group, but after a two-month delay he committed suicide, Heintz said.
The continued efforts of Heintz, Mary Anne and Raymond Burke – whose son, Seaman Raymond Matthew Burke, was 21 when he committed suicide in 2001 – could help.
In the first quarter of 2021, the number of suicide deaths in active duty and in the reserve (115) decreased compared to the same quarter in 2020 (136) while those in the National Guard remained the same (26), according to the most recent Pentagon statistics. . And the number of veterans committing suicide has also declined.
Veteran suicides fell to their lowest level in 12 years in 2019, down more than one death per day from levels a year earlier, according to new data released by the Department of Veterans Affairs on the 8th. September, citing the latest statistics available. The 6,261 veteran suicide deaths in 2019 are 399 less than in 2018 and equivalent to about 17 per day. That figure is far lower than the oft-cited “22 a day” statistic for veteran suicide, which was based on an estimate used by VA officials a decade ago. Taking into account active duty military, reservists and other associated groups, the total is closer to 20 per day.
Regarding veteran suicides, McDonough said VA now knows “three very important principles” that help reduce suicide deaths.
“First, suicide is preventable,” he said. “Second, it requires a comprehensive public health effort. And third, it means everyone has a role. And we remember it every day. And I think we’re showing that this strategy can work. We just released the most recent numbers, which is the numbers from 2018 to 2019. And we have shown a decrease in the number of veteran suicides, which, of course, is big news. But it is insufficient. And we won’t stop until that number hits zero.
When asked what more the VA can do, McDonough said his department needs to “do a better job of getting more veterans into our care” because veterans who seek VA care come out better than those who don’t.
Congress, he said, “has given us new additional resources to do this, including new grant programs, to enable us to find at-risk vets where they are in their communities. So this is really important. And then, once the veterans are in our care, we need to make sure that they can come into our home in a timely manner, for the best available, world-class care. And that means we need to hire more practitioners. “
But that’s a challenge, McDonough said.
“We are looking very carefully at how it is that we can be part of the solution and make sure that the country, which is experiencing a strategic shortage of counseling counselors, social workers, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, how can we do our part to increase that number? So these are some of the things we can, will, and do. “
For most of the walk, which started shortly after 9 a.m. and lasted until around 11 a.m., McDonough spent his time talking with members of the Gold Star family and listening to their concerns.
“First of all, I heard amazing stories of amazing families, who are committed to taking the tragedy they’ve been through and making sure that we, as a country, pull the best practices and stay urgently focused on not allowing this. happen, ”he said. “So above all, I am struck by the dedication and urgent priority these families place on these mental health and suicide prevention issues. “
Other questions, he said, concerned access to VA services.
“We have to make sure we get timely access. Good training. We need to make sure that all of our clinicians, not just our mental health practitioners, but all of our clinicians know what to look for indicators of distress. “
Another problem, he said, was the “tightening of the transfer from DoD to VA.” So that we are there and available to make sure those who are struggling during the transition, which is understandable and frequent, that we can provide care.
“And then, finally, that we communicate from day one, when we recruit young men and women into the Armed Forces, that we communicate to them that mental health is their health. And I want to make sure they’re active duty soldiers, and our vets of all ages understand that point. “
Mary Anne Burke, who described her son as “a big bear from a guy who loved being in the military,” said she and her husband have a lasting commitment to ensuring that such awareness continues.
“We just want to make people realize that they should be there when they come to you,” she said. “And if they come to you, try to keep those lines of communication open.”
Veterans facing a mental health emergency can contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select Option 1 for a VA staff member. Veterans, soldiers or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net help.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously a military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that for the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and the SOF at large among many other topics. .