Important Note: This new VA initiative has been posted here for educational awareness. MFLC Duty to Warn (DTW) protocol is not in any way affected by this initiative. If you are in a situation with a participant who is presenting with DTW issues, follow the MFLC protocol.
Written by Gina Harkins, Senior Staff Writer, Military Officers Association of America
Thousands of veterans around the country might’ve recently heard something like this when they answered the phone: “Your name came up as somebody who is at very high risk for suicide, and we’re concerned about you.”
Those calls are going out to veterans considered high risk for self-harm based on data analytics, National Public Radio reported. It’s a program called REACH VET, which stands for Recovery Engagement and Coordination for Health – Veterans Enhanced Treatment. VA mental health professionals are reaching out to about 1,000 veterans a month whose health records show they might be at a high risk for suicide, hospitalization, or illness.
“We call them, and this is being done around the country, to reach out and see what we can do to proactively help,” VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin told lawmakers Wednesday. “So not waiting until there’s a suicide attempt.”
About 20 veterans a day die from suicide. Most of those veterans typically aren’t receiving care in the VA system, Shulkin said. That’s important data to understand, said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.
“[If] only six were enrolled in VA health care, what does that mean?” Tester said. “We’ve got to do a better job of outreach.”
To better reach the high-risk patients who are in the VA health care system, the department teamed with the Pentagon to mine six years’ worth of data, NPR reported. If someone has markers that make them high risk, the VA simply reaches out and asks if they need help.
“Every day we delay, there’s going to be more deaths,” Shulkin said. “Our suicide prevention coordinators get lists of veterans’ names that are in the highest 0.1 highest risk of suicide, 80 times higher risk than a person who is not on the list. And they proactively are calling out every day, saying ‘How are you doing? How can we potentially help you in anything that you need help with?’ ”
Connecting veterans to mental health professionals can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. If veterans aren’t in the VA system though, the REACH VET program won’t work, Shulkin said. That’s a problem, because 14 of the roughly 20 veterans who commit suicide each day don’t use the VA system.
“That’s a big issue for us,” the secretary said. “We have a big hole here.”
Shulkin said he hopes expanding emergency mental health care to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges and cooperating more with DoD can help fill the gaps. The VA is working with the Pentagon to automatically enroll troops transitioning out of the military into the VA “so nobody leaves active service without knowing where they can get their mental health care,” Shulkin said.
For now, he’s urging all military leaders, veterans and retirees to put the phone number to the VA’s veteran crisis hotline in their phones: (800) 273-8255.
“You never know when you’re going to get that 2 a.m. call,” he said.