Officials at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are now blaming the agency’s lack of consistent leadership for a substantial drop off in suicide prevention efforts throughout 2017 and 2018, despite suicide rates climbing dramatically among some veteran demographics just one year prior.
Between 2015 and 2016, the last years for which we have concrete figures, suicides among young veterans (age 18-34) increased from 40.4 suicides for every 100,000 veterans to 45. As a result, one might expect the VA to allocate some of their media-specific suicide prevention funding to outreach efforts geared at that demographic. As this would be targeting the most tech-savvy group of veterans, you’d at least expect to see a sharp increase in social media initiatives directed at mental health and suicide prevention.
Instead, in 2018, America’s veterans saw a large drop in social media content addressing suicide—just 47 posts in 2018 compared to 339 in 2016. In fact, despite having more than $6.2 million allocated for paid suicide prevention advertising on television and radio, the VA didn’t produce a single piece of content for those interfaces. The agency just left that money on the table. In total, only $57,000 of that $6.2 million was actually spent on efforts to curb veteran suicide.
“Veterans and Congress have spent the last decade making sure that suicide prevention is the VA’s top clinical priority, and in the last two years, it appears the VA has nearly completely abandoned that mission,” Vietnam Veterans of America President John Rowan said in a statement.
According to a report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the VA effectively stopped working on suicide prevention in 2018 due to its revolving door of senior leaders, including four turnovers at the Secretary of Veterans Affairs level over the past year alone.
“VA has stated that preventing veteran suicide is its top clinical priority, yet [the Veterans Health Administration’s] lack of leadership attention to its suicide prevention media outreach campaign in recent years has resulted in less outreach to veterans,” the GAO report states.
Despite care for veterans being among the few topics both Republican and Democrat lawmakers can agree on, ineffectual leadership and an apparent lack of concern among VA officials allowed the drop off in suicide prevention efforts to take root over the past two years. VA employees have blamed a lack of oversight amid frequent turnovers and position gaps at the agency’s top echelons, and there’s evidence to support this assertion. Over the past year, the role of national director for suicide prevention sat vacant for three months. There have been almost as many changes in secretarial leadership at the VA during President Trump’s two years in office as there were in all of George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s entire administrations combined.
However, as a group of Democrat lawmakers pointed out last month, the administration’s frequent shifts in leadership does not grant the VA an excuse to become negligent in its duties.
“Dysfunction at VA cannot be the excuse for the lack of a plan to execute suicide prevention outreach,” 21 senators wrote in a joint letter. “Efforts to prevent suicide must remain at the forefront of the Department’s care of veterans.”
The GAO report went on to state that the VA does not currently have any system in place to gauge the efficacy of suicide outreach efforts even when they actually mount them, meaning even when the money gets spent, there’s no way to determine if it’s being spent in effective ways.