There are probably few jobs as stressful as running the Department of Veterans Affairs. And toward the end of a walk to raise awareness about troop and veteran suicide deaths, VA Secretary Denis McDonough reflected on how he handles his own mental health challenges.
“I do seek help,” he said during a stop along the Gold Star Mothers Inc. Walk for Military Suicide Awareness on Saturday. “Whether it’s through priests, whether it’s through mental health professionals, I absolutely do. And this is the kind of outreach that I consider critical to my entire health. I pay great attention to my heart health, to my physical health, my fitness, and that includes my mental health.”
McDonough, who served as the White House Chief of Staff under former President Barack Obama, oversees a department with more than 400,000 employees and a budget of $243 billion, larger than any of the individual military services.
Speaking to Military Times at the World War II Memorial, the third stop on the 2.2 mile walk that wended its way from the Korean War Memorial to the Vietnam Memorial, McDonough talked about what he does when he faces mental health challenges.
“What I do is talk to our professionals at VA,” he said. “You know, in the hallway. If something is bothering me, I can pull them aside, and seek their counsel. If I’m struggling with something, I often will seek out spiritual advice through a priest or through a nun . The point is that we have to make sure that we’re thinking about our mental health as part of our whole health, and making sure that we recognize that doing so is ensuring the best possible outcome,
“There is nothing to be embarrassed about,” he added. “Nothing to be to feel something that will contribute to ensuring that everyone and vets in particular, so they can live the life that they’ve earned.”
To the Gold Star parents on this walk who lost children to suicide, raising awareness about the ongoing need to help prevent suicides was one of the main points of the walk.
The issue of military and veteran suicide “is just a given sometimes that people are becoming a little numb to it,” said Lisa Heintz, whose son, Sr. Airman Joshua Reinwasser, took his own life on Veterans Day, 2018, shortly after his 23rd birthday. “But I think by coming out here and seeing my son’s name and putting a face to what’s left behind” is a reminder that a single suicide “affects so many people.”
Reinwasser was a loader/maintainer on the B-1 bomber and had developed lesions on his lungs as a result of exposure to chemicals, said his mom. Struggling with a looming medical retirement from the job he loved, Reinwasser sought help from the VA and his medical group, but after a two-month delay, he took his own life, said Heintz.
The ongoing efforts by Heintz, and Mary Anne and Raymond Burke — whose son, Navy Seaman Raymond Matthew Burke, was 21 when took his own life in 2001 —may be helping.
In the first quarter of 2021, the number of active-duty and Reserve suicide deaths (115) decreased from the same quarter in 2020 (136) while those in the National Guard remained the same (26), according to the most recent Pentagon statistics. And the number of veterans taking their own lives has also dropped.
Veteran suicides fell to their lowest level in 12 years in 2019, down more than one death a day from the previous year’s levels, according to new data released by the Department of Veterans Affairs Sept. 8, citing the latest statistics available. The 6,261 veteran deaths by suicide in 2019 are 399 fewer than 2018 and equate to about 17 per day. That figure is well below the often-quoted “22 a day” statistic regarding veterans suicide, which was based on an estimate used by VA officials a decade ago. When factoring in active-duty military, reservists and other associated groups, the total is closer to 20 a day.
When it comes to veteran suicides, McDonough said VA now knows “three very important principles” contributing to the reduction in suicide deaths.
“One, suicide is preventable,” he said. “Two, it requires a comprehensive public health effort. And three, that means everybody has a role. And we’re reminded of that every day. And I think we’re demonstrating that this strategy can work. We’ve just put out the most recent numbers, which is the numbers from 2018, to 2019. And we showed a decrease in the number of veteran suicides, which, of course, is important news. But it’s insufficient. And we won’t stop until we get that number to zero.”
When asked what more the VA can do, McDonough said his department has to “do a better job getting more veterans in our care” because veterans who seek VA care fare better than those who don’t.
Congress, he pointed out, “has given us additional new resources to do that, including new grant programs, to allow us to find at-risk vets, where they are in their communities. So that’s really important. And then once veterans are in our care, we have to make sure that they can get into us in a timely way, for the best available, world class care. And so that means we have to hire more practitioners.”
But therein lies a challenge, said McDonough.
“We’re taking a very hard look at how it is that we can be part of the solution and ensuring that the country, which is experiencing a strategic shortage of counseling counselors, social workers, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, how can we do our part to grow that number? So those are some of the things that we can, will, and indeed are doing.”
During most of the walk, which started shortly after 9 a.m. and lasted until about 11 a.m., McDonough spent his time speaking with the Gold Star family members and listening to their concerns.
“First of all, I’ve heard amazing stories about amazing families, who are committed to taking the tragedy that they’ve experienced, and making sure that we, as a country draw best practice, and remain focused with urgency on not allowing this to happen,” he said. “So first and foremost, I’m struck by the dedication and the urgent prioritization that these families are putting on these issues around mental health and suicide prevention.”
Other questions, he said, were concerns about access to VA services.
“We have to make sure we’re getting timely access. Good training. We have to make sure that all of our clinicians, not just our mental health practitioners, but all of our clinicians know what to look for indicators of distress.”
Another issue, he said, was the “tightening the handoff from DoD to VA. So that we are there and available to make sure that who’s experiencing hardship during transition, which is understandable and frequent, that we can provide care.
“And then, lastly, that we’re communicating from day one, when we recruit young men and women into the Armed Forces, that we are communicating to them that mental health is their health. And I want to make sure that are active-duty troopers, and our vets of all ages understand that point.”
Mary Anne Burke, who described her son as “a big bear of a guy who loved being in the military,” said she and her husband have an enduring commitment to ensuring such awareness continues.
“We just want to make people aware that they should be there when they come to you,” she said. “And if they come to you, try and keep those lines of communications open.”
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.
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