News Releases

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Isakson Discusses Ways to Combat Veteran Suicide

Examines VA's suicide prevention efforts, #BeThere campaign at committee hearing

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, held a hearing Wednesday to examine the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) suicide prevention programs and assess what legislative changes may be needed to ensure the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has the necessary resources to combat veteran suicide.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and the VA has launched its #BeThere campaign to help spread awareness about veteran suicide and prevention. In 2014, suicide was the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States. The average number of veterans who commit suicide has remained steady at 20 deaths per day since 2011, a statistic that Isakson noted is appalling and unacceptable.

“Suicide is a terrible, terrible, terrible loss, and a wasteful loss of life and a preventable loss of life,” said Isakson.

“Timing is everything. When someone is contemplating suicide, it’s not something you put off to an appointment on Wednesday, or to another day, it’s something you deal with immediately and you deal with quickly and you expedite the response to it,” he added.

To help improve the VHA’s suicide prevention programs, in 2015 Congress passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act of 2015. In the Senate, the bill passed unanimously with a 99-0 vote.

Expanding on these efforts, the VHA has appointed a national suicide prevention coordinator, expanded its Veterans Crisis Line (VCL), developed a patient-record “flagging” system to identify high-risk patients, and created suicide prevention programs in each facility.

Isakson questioned VA Secretary David Shulkin and three other witnesses regarding the implementation of these programs and discussed ways to improve flaws in the system.

“We haven’t had enough training in the VA for dealing with suicide and our response timing needs improvement,” Isakson said. “We need to work on that, and Dr. Shulkin has prioritized suicide prevention as a focus of his leadership.”

I
sakson continued, “Just like the Heimlich maneuver has saved many a life in a restaurant, …just like CPR has helped people who might be drowning or might have drowned and been brought back to life, being aware of the training that’s necessary to save a life is critically important.” 

While many of these programs were identified as positive practices by the VA’s office of the inspector general, it was found that the implementation of newer and more effective strategies should be accompanied by comprehensive training programs.

“Knowing what to do is 90 percent of solving the problem. And 100 percent of solving the problem is identifying it so we’re better aware of the things we need to look for,” said Isakson.

Isakson committed to working with members of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and VA Secretary Shulkin to help promote awareness and enhance these suicide prevention initiatives.

“The training that is necessary to save a life is critically important, and we’re going to see to it in our committee that we promote this training throughout the VA and throughout the government to see to it that we are saving lives and helping people to recover and restore their life,” said Isakson.

At the start of today’s hearing, Isakson and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., ranking Democrat on the committee, signed a suicide prevention declaration with Secretary Shulkin to commit to helping spread awareness about veteran suicide and educating others about suicide prevention and resources.

“I’m proud that all of our staff on the majority and minority side have taken the ‘SAVE course’ and now understand how important it is to look for the signs of suicide,” said Isakson. “I think as we embrace the SAVE program in the VA, we will save a lot of lives by simply having the awareness and the direction of knowing what to do.”

Watch Isakson’s opening remarks from the hearing here.

More resources on suicide prevention from the VA can be found here.

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The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is chaired by U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in the 115th Congress. Isakson is a veteran himself – having served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966-1972 – and has been a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs since he joined the Senate in 2005. Isakson’s home state of Georgia is home to more than a dozen military installations representing each branch of the armed services as well as more than 750,000 veterans.