FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) – The numbers tell the story: A startling average of 20 veterans kill themselves every day.
That was a statistic federal and state veteran affairs officials kept coming back to while testifying about suicide prevention programs available to Kentucky’s 300,000 veterans at Monday’s meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection.
“Within our veterans’ community, there has been a recognized problem with young men and women coming home from serving ... and then finding themselves drifting outside of the military,” said Rep. Tim Moore, R-Elizabethtown, who co-chaired the committee. “This is an issue important to all of us.”
Lexington Veterans Affairs Suicide Prevention Case Manager Becky Stinsky said that 70 percent of the veterans who take their own lives are not seeking treatment through the VA health care system. She told legislators that she conducts suicide prevention training in the community, including companies that employ large numbers of veterans, to try to reach that 70 percent.
Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs Deputy Commissioner Heather French Henry said her department collaborates closely with the VA.
“If you would have told me 18 years ago that the VA would be offering things like acupuncture, tai chi and yoga, I would have said there probably is never going to be a chance,” Henry said. “But now every VA hospital really is a specialty care facility when it comes to mental health, behavioral health. They do offer some of these more nontraditional ways to address mental health.”
Rep. Dean Schamore, D-Hardinsburg, asked how long, on average, it takes a veteran to qualify for VA health care benefits if they have suicidal thoughts.
“If anyone (with suicidal thoughts) contacts the VA, whether they are eligible or not, we are going to care for them,” said Lexington VA Suicide Prevention Coordinator Rebecca Willis-Nichols, who also testified before the committee.
She said the process to apply for VA health care benefits has become “much leaner” and easier in recent years. It can be done online, via mail or in person by filling out a 10-minute form, she said.
Schamore then asked what happens to suicidal veterans that do not qualify for VA health care benefits.
“For those veterans, we are going to care for them acutely and make sure they are safe,” Willis-Nichols said. “We are then going to talk to them about community resources, whether it is their comp care, whether it is contacting their health insurance to get them access that way, or looking at free resources.”
Sen. Perry B. Clark, D-Louisville, asked what percent of veterans utilize VA health care. Henry said it was only 9 percent.
“Unfortunately, there are going to be a percentage that do not want to use the VA,” she said. “There might still be a misperception that it is a second-rate health care system. But I will tell you, as one whose dad gets excellent health care at the VA, it is a top-rate health care institution – the only national health care system we got. They do extremely great research and health care work.”
Rep. Jim DuPlessis, R-Elizabethtown, asked the officials testifying if they had insight on why female veterans are two-and-half times more likely to kill themselves than female civilians.
Henry said she is working hard to make her department less male-centric so women get proper recognition and care. Willis-Nichols added that VA health care had historically been such a male-dominated system that women simply didn’t get the support they needed.
Stinsky theorized that it was because female veterans are more likely to have access to a gun then female civilians. She added that female civilians are more likely to use pills or other methods that are less lethal than firearms.
“I really just want to emphasize that time and distance between someone in crisis and the means in which they can kill themselves makes all the difference,” Stinsky said. “That time and distance is a protecting factor.”
She added that VA health care offers gunlocks to all its patients with no questions asked.
“We don’t put your name on a list,” Stinsky said. “We give them free of charge.”