David Goldman/AP

Obama expands military suicide prevention programs

Executive order directs agencies to ramp up mental health care services for vets and families.

President Obama on Friday issued an executive order directing federal agencies to expand suicide prevention programs and mental health care for service members, veterans and their families.

The order calls on the Veterans Affairs Department to hire 800 support counselors, who are also vets, to help their peers receive mental health care, and directs the department to use its pay-setting authorities, loan repayment and other incentives to recruit and hire 1,600 mental health care providers by June 2013. VA has brought on more than 3,500 mental health professionals since 2009.

The president also directed Veterans Affairs and the Health and Human Services Department to establish 15 pilot sites in areas where VA has had trouble hiring mental health care providers and vets experience long wait times to access care. “In pilot sites, VA will contract with community health centers, community mental health clinics, community substance abuse treatment facilities and other HHS grantees and community resources to help reduce VA mental health waiting lists,” stated a fact sheet from the White House on the executive order. VA and HHS also will work together to improve access to mental health providers in rural and underserved areas.

“The need for mental health services will only increase in the coming years as the nation deals with the effects of more than a decade of conflict,” the order stated. The number of service members and vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury has swelled during the past 10 years, and both problems have received more attention from health care providers, officials and the public. The president directed VA, and the Defense, Education and Health and Human Services departments to improve early diagnosis and treatment of PTSD and TBI.

According to the executive order, VA also will be responsible for increasing the number of mental health professionals available to care for vets “beyond traditional business hours,” as well as ensure any vet in crisis is connected with a mental health provider within 24 hours. In addition, VA and HHS by the end of this year are tasked with expanding by 50 percent the capacity of the veterans’ crisis line to improve access to mental health care for vets by telephone, text and online chat. The president directed VA and Defense to develop a yearlong national suicide prevention campaign focused on connecting vets and service members to mental health services. The Army has confirmed that 66 soldiers committed suicide so far this year; 50 cases remain under investigation. In 2011, there were 165 confirmed suicides in the Army.

“I think the executive order is a step in the right direction, particularly incentivizing DoD and VA to collaborate with HHS, Education and other federal agencies,” said Kristina Kaufmann, executive director of the non-profit Code of Support Foundation and an advocate of better suicide prevention programs and mental health services for military members and their families. “But changing a culture is not for the faint of heart, and without oversight from senior leadership, our efforts suicide prevention efforts will continue to fall short.”

The executive order comes as Obama ramps up his reelection campaign heading into the fall. The president has made job training, employment, and mental health care for veterans and service members a focal point of his administration in the past two years, and it is likely Democrats will highlight the issue at their convention in Charlotte, N.C., next week. Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 2 million service members have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The executive order also creates a governmentwide task force to study and recommend ways to improve mental health and substance abuse treatment programs for service members, vets and their families.