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September/october 2009

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BY TOM BERGER
On August 13, the Army released suicide data for the month of July. Among active-duty soldiers, eight potential suicides were reported. In June, the Army reported no confirmed suicides and nine potential suicides among active-duty soldiers. Since the June report, four of the nine potential suicides have been confirmed and five remain under investigation. 
There have been 96 reported active-duty Army suicides during the January 1 to July 31 period. Of these, 62 have been confirmed, and 34 are pending determination of manner of death. For the same period in 2008, there were 79 suicides among active-duty soldiers. 
During July 2009, among Reserve soldiers not on active duty, there were four potential suicides. During the January 1 to July 31 period among that same group, there have been 17 confirmed suicides and 28 potential suicides; the potential suicides are under investigation to determine the manner of death. For the same period in 2008, there were 32 suicides among Reserve soldiers not on active duty.
In an August 9 article in the Spokane, Washington Spokesman-Review, the report of a VA investigation stated that the number of Spokane-area veterans who killed themselves from July 2007 to July 2008 was far greater than the Spokane VA Medical Center knew at the time. The Spokane VA had previously reported nine suicides and 34 attempted suicides. But in reality, at least 22 veterans in the Spokane VA service area killed themselves.
According to VA medical inspectors: “The methods and sources routinely being utilized by the medical center to identify veterans who have committed suicide may be inadequate.” 
Although the report was completed on February 4, it was not released until early August by the VA to Spokane resident Steve Senescall, who had spent a year trying to find out more about the death of his son, Lucas. The discrepancy between the nine deaths reported earlier by the Spokane VA and the 22 noted in the medical investigators’ report came as a result of the medical center comparing death records from the Spokane County medical examiner with records from all three branches of the VA—the Veterans Health Administration, the Veteran Benefits Administration, and the National Cemetery System. 
Among the recommendations of the medical inspectors was that the VA and the Department of Defense “should determine under what circumstances patient safety should take priority over patient privacy, e.g., reservists being treated by the VA who are in no physical/mental condition to deploy.” VA Medical Center Director Sharon Helman said: “We have aggressively taken action to improve care to veterans.”
According to the Ann Arbor News, University of Michigan researchers will survey thousands of soldiers as part of the largest study of suicide and mental health in the U.S. military. The $50 million research project was announced July 16 and will be conducted jointly with the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Harvard Medical School, and Columbia University. The study will identify risk factors in soldiers’ suicides, and help the U.S. Army prevent more suicides from occurring.
“The goal of this five-year study is to identify modifiable risk and protective factors related to suicidal behavior and to provide a scientific basis for guiding the Army’s ongoing efforts to prevent suicide and improve soldiers’ overall psychological health and functioning,” said Steven Heeringa, the principal investigator. Heeringa directs the Statistical Design Group at the Institute for Social Research’s Survey Research Center.
ISR will design and conduct several large-scale survey data collections, and build and manage the study research databases in a way that protects the identity and privacy of Army personnel. ISR will survey 90,000 active personnel, including members of the Army, National Guard, and Reserves. Researchers will ask about the prevalence of suicide-related behavior, as well as risk and protective factors. Saliva and blood samples will be taken for genetic and biologic analysis. ISR also will survey every recruit who joins the Army during each of the first three years of the study.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

August marks the 20th anniversary of the National Center for PTSD. Congratulations to Executive Director Matt Friedman and his staff, and thanks for their outstanding service to America’s veterans and families. The center’s website—www.ptsd.va.gov—is one of the most valuable mental health resources available in the veterans’ community.

CONVENTION BRIEFS

Thanks to everyone for making the Louisville National Convention  a success. During the course of the PTSD/SA Committee meeting, attendees heard an excellent presentation by New York VVA members Gordie Lane and Peter Bronstead on Onondaga County Veterans’ Diversion Program. In addition, Tom Hall of Kansas City, Mo., accepted re-appointment as chair of the VVA National PTSD & Substance Abuse Committee. Lastly, congratulations to  the new (and re-elected) VVA Board of Directors. Tom Hall and I look forward to working with you in keeping veterans’ mental health and substance abuse issues at the forefront of VVA’s agenda for the next two years .

 

 

 

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