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  • Writer's pictureCaroline Cliona Boyle

Veteran Mental Health Services Ramp up in Response to Afghan Pullout

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

By Caroline Cliona Boyle

The VA testified this morning in front of Congress, laying out a roadmap to eliminate veteran suicide.

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Department of Veterans Affairs will continue to expand the availability of its mental health services in an effort to prevent veteran suicides.

Expert witnesses from the VA testified in front of Congress that the recent Afghan pullout has spurred a dramatic increase in veteran suicide prevention services. Dr. Matthew Miller, the national director of suicide prevention for the VA, says the Veteran Crisis Line (VCL) experienced a 6% increase in calls and a 17% increase in chat since August 15.

In order to ensure the VCL first responders exercised utmost sensitivity, Matthews said the VA was quick to educate them on the Afghan withdrawal. The organization subsequently created the “Let’s Talk About It” campaign to destigmatize veteran’s use of mental health services in the wake of the crisis.

It is clear that the campaign has received a positive response, said Miller. Approximately 8% of total communication currently received by the VHL is either directly attributable or significantly related to the Afghan withdrawal, he said.

In response to the notable surge of VCL users, the VA proactively saturated its services with available first responders, according to the Veterans Health Administration’s chief medical officer, Dr. Kameron L. Matthews. The VA is appropriately staffing shifts in addition to outsourcing its services to the American Red Cross and the National Center for PTSD in order to ensure every call is answered, she said.

While it is the VA’s primary goal to provide emotional support services to veterans, VA staff also absorb the “vicarious trauma of really working with others in these touching moments,” said Matthews. In response to this, the VA will provide a significant amount of mental health support for its first responders during this time.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) thanked the VA for its tailored approach in the wake of the ongoing pandemic and said the effort to eliminate veteran suicide transcends partisan boundaries.

“We share a common passion for those who have served our nations”, Takano said.

In 2019, unprecedented levels of progress were achieved in eliminating veteran suicides, according to the 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report, released on September 8. In total, veteran suicides declined by 7.2%. Female veteran suicides dropped by 13%, the lowest figure since 2002.

Despite the progress attained, congressmembers raised concerns over the noticeable two-year lag in the VA’s veteran suicide data. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va) pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic will certainly have a negative effect on veteran suicides this year, and the lag in data is problematic for accomplishing the VA’s objectives.

The lag in suicide data largely results from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Miller. With no access to demographics, The VA cannot concretely distinguish how many veterans died by suicide for the year until they have received data from the CDC.

As veterans grapple with two national crises — the Afghan pullout and the COVID-19 pandemic — the VA will continue collecting data on its own server and respond accordingly once veteran suicide statistics for 2020 and 2021 become available, said Matthews.

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