First, let me thank Secretary Gates for joining Secretary Shinseki in sponsoring this year's conference on suicide prevention.
Let me also thank Dr. Samuel Kleinman, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Readiness; Dr. and Brigadier General Jonathan Woodson, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs; and everyone else who has supported and organized this conference, including VA's Dr. Agarwal, Dr. Sonja Batten, Dr. Toni Zeiss, and Dr. Jan Kemp.
Together, DoD, VA, and our community partners have accomplished a lot of late in suicide prevention, and this conference is a much needed opportunity to share what we've learned. I'm pleased to have the opportunity to be here.
You know, we often use the word tragedy rather loosely, describing any great misfortune as a "tragedy." Theater folk use the word very differently. In drama, a "tragedy" is a play with a sad ending, and not every misfortune has a sad ending. People often learn from their misfortunes. They grow stronger. They find other opportunities and sometimes new meaning in life.
Death itself is not always a sad ending — but suicide is. Suicide is a true tragedy: It ends sadly for everyone. It's perhaps the ultimate tragedy — never necessary, always avoidable, absolutely final, and permanently painful for those left behind.
At VA, we care for millions of Veterans with sick or broken bodies. We help Veterans live better lives. We sometimes even save lives.
But those of you involved in suicide prevention do even more than that. You don't just save lives — you save souls. You pull spirits back from the brink of despair, saving them from the worst possible outcome, and sparing others lifetimes of grief and shame.
Your work could hardly be more urgent, more honorable, or more deserving of the Nation's support and encouragement.
I know that's how Secretary Shinseki sees it. That's why one of our three main objectives at VA is breaking that downward spiral of defeat and despair that too often ends in homelessness and suicide. One in five suicides in America is a Veteran — over 6,000 per year — 18 per day by some counts.
Five of those 18 are Veterans receiving care from VHA. For every Veteran in the VHA system who dies by suicide, at least six more attempt suicide. One third of Veterans who commit suicide have attempted suicide before.
The suicide rate among male Veterans is almost twice that of the general population. Older Veterans account for most Veteran suicides. These are often men and women overcome by age-related depression. Some are also burdened with disabilities and psychic trauma from their time in service.
But young male Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have seen some of the highest suicide rates in the past decade. They are still more prone to suicide than Americans just like them who have not served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The suicide rate for young male Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan spiked in 2004. That same year, VA developed its Comprehensive Mental Health Strategic Plan, with a special focus on suicide prevention efforts. In FY 2007, we added a Suicide Prevention Hotline and began hiring Suicide Prevention Coordinators, fully implementing the strategic plan in FY 2008.
Since then, funding for VA mental health programs has risen from $3.9 billion to over $5.2 billion dollars in FY 2011 — a one-third increase. With the extra funding, we have hired more than 3,500 mental health professionals, and our mental health staff now totals almost 21,000.
With all that extra firepower, we're turning the battle around. We're starting to see evidence of a decrease in suicide rates among Veterans in VHA's care — in the critical age group of 18 to 29 — compared to similar Veterans not in VHA's care. This decrease translates to about 250 lives per year.
Make no mistake: One suicide is too many, so we're not stopping there. The President's 2012 budget request includes $6.2 billion for mental health programs — $1 billion dollars more than this year — a nearly 20 percent increase. Of the requested $6.2 billion, $68 million are for suicide prevention.
Our basic strategy for suicide prevention involves providing ready access to high-quality mental health care, with special attention to Veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), or other psychological and cognitive health conditions.
The strategy also involves energetic outreach to educate people on what to look for and how to access the available care.
One of our most successful initiatives is our Suicide Prevention Hotline. Veterans can call the hotline — 1-800-273-TALK — and then "push 1" to reach a trained VA professional who can deal confidentially with an immediate crisis. Nearly 400,000 people have called the hotline, including over 5,000 active-duty Service Members. We have made over 50,000 referrals for care, and close to 14,000 actively suicidal Veterans have been rescued.
In 2009, we added an on-line Chat Service for people who might feel uncomfortable talking to someone in person. To date, we've made contact with almost 4,000 people through on-line chat. Many of them have been referred to the hotline for immediate personal care.
If you haven't already heard, we'll be making one significant improvement to our hotline in the weeks ahead. After studying its effectiveness, we've decided to strategically rebrand the hotline as the Veterans Crisis Line. Research suggests to us that this should lower the threshold for Veterans and their families, so they'll make that critical first call for help sooner. We'll be doing a formal roll-out of the new brand in a few weeks.
Let me tell you about some of our other successful initiatives:
Of course, the biggest challenge in suicide prevention is getting help to the people who need help before they attempt suicide. That means raising awareness among VA employees and reaching out to Veterans and their family members.
Our outreach and awareness efforts include —
Veterans, their families, and VA employees of the signs to look for and the help that's available. Our Suicide Prevention Coordinators also do outreach activities in their local communities and provide Operation SAVE training to returning Veterans, family groups, Veterans Service Organizations, or other community groups as needed.
We can't allow our Veterans to languish without hope. As Secretary Shinseki has said many times, "At VA, we don't accept hopelessness — not among the injured, not among the ill, and not among the homeless."
By sharing your insights and experience, both the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs will be better able to restore hope to those suffering without it. On behalf of Secretary Shinseki, thank you for taking part in this conference and for all you do daily on behalf of our men and women in uniform and our Veterans.