New reports have been circulating that U.S. government programs are failing to address soaring suicide rates among veterans. While veteran programs have been the subject of heightened criticism for failing to adequately support the veteran community, the Veteran Administration's budget, has been significantly increasing in recent years, and it devoted some notable attention to the issue in recent years. While the amount of absolute dollars necessary to serve the needs of veterans can be debated, the ever-rising VA budget indicates that the relative amount of funding available is not the main problem. It is improved and more targeted programming to address mental health, rather than increased funding, that the evidence suggests is most needed to help address these problems affecting so many deserving servicemen and women.
The available statistics are disheartening. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among U.S. military personnel, outpacing the rate of combat-related deaths for the fourth year in a row, and reaching record highs this year. A government study conducted this past March found the VA failed to process at least 900,000 outstanding medical claims for veterans and their families this spring. With this rampant backlog problem (one some have accused is particularly horrific due to investments in bad processing systems), in 2010, more than 500 veterans were reported to be on a wait list to receive mental health care at Atlanta's VA hospital alone. A whopping 16 of these patients were then reported to have committed suicide while waiting for an appointment.
Many have been quick to judge that it is simply a lack of adequate funding for the high VA case loads resulting from the traumatic nature of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that are to blame. But the irony of the matter is that, in absolute terms, the amount of money the agency has been receiving has been skyrocketing despite rising suicide cases. From the 1940s up to about the 1990s, the VA's budget has fluctuated according to whether or not the U.S. was at war, peaking in 1976 at an inflation-adjusted $76.94 billion in today's dollars. The agency's budget then fell over the years before rising to about $69 billion under Bush in 2005, and since almost doubled in the early Obama years to well over $100 billion. The current budget request for FY 2014 is $152.7 billion, a record high.
If a lack of adequate funds are to blame for paperwork backlogs leading to sometimes life-and-death implications for the financial and physical health of deserving veteran families, it is unclear just how much the budget would have to increase to help reduce suicide rates and other struggles veterans face. This surely suggests that institutional and bureaucratic issues are to blame.
But the VA itself has not failed to recognize the problem. The agency publishes its own suicide data analysis and prevention strategy reports attempting to monitor the issue (most of which is available here). A $3 million army grant was even announced last year to help scientists at Indiana University School of Medicine to develop an anti-depressant nose spray to help soldiers.
Further, some studies suggest that, while suicide rates are appallingly high among military personnel, there may not be as strong a correlation between war experience and mental health as one might expect. A new study by the American Medical Association found that military deployments were not the cause of the high numbers of suicides. According to their research, military suicides are indicated by the same factors that are normally correlated with suicides in the broader population, and did not correlate strongly with factors specific to military experience such as length and location of deployment.
Whatever the root of the issues causing shockingly high suicide rates among these veterans, the budget numbers suggest that the federal agency devoted to honoring the work of those who sacrifice the most for our country can and should do a better job with regards to mental health. Putting the blame on sequestration and other federal budget issues ignores the complexities of the problems at hand. The soaring suicide rate should be a prime concern for the military, and, beyond funding concerns, mental health issues in the military are deserving of increased visibility and attention.