On World Suicide Prevention Day and the eve of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sen. Ron Wyden put out a call to fellow lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to bolster access to mental health services.
"So many veterans across our state, literally, every nook and cranny of Oregon today are up against a crushing combination of mental health challenges," Wyden said Friday, Sept. 10, from the Southwest Portland offices of Lines for Life, a suicide and substance abuse prevention network that operates telephone hotlines for anyone in need. "They're dealing with special pain. Special pain for vets who were asked to fight a 20-year battle against the forces who attacked us and anguished memories of friends who have fallen."
In the 20 years since U.S. forces first entered Iraq and Afghanistan in the War on Terror, recent estimates are that veterans were four times as likely to die by suicide than in combat.
A national Veterans Crisis Line told news outlet The Daily Beast that by Aug. 25, the hotline saw a 17% uptick in calls following news of the Taliban's takeover of Kabul, Afghanistan.
The latest available data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs indicates 120,824 veterans from all wars died by suicide from 2001 to 2019, far outpacing the roughly 7,000 veterans who died in the post-9/11 military conflicts.
A shortage of behavioral health care workers, combined with what Wyden called "concerning" practices of health insurance companies that often dodge paying for behavioral health services, has led to a crisis that requires federal solutions.
Wyden, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, said he's working closely with Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho — the senior Republican on the Finance Committee — to garner bipartisan support and action on the mental health challenges veterans and all Americans are up against.
"What I have been told by veterans, again and again, (is) the health care available to them is terrific, if they can get it," Wyden said. "And the challenge, of course, is that we just need more terrific people in the workforce to serve veterans."
In a Sept. 10 letter to committee members, Wyden and Crapo invited members to join efforts to address barriers to mental health care. "We will review current law, evaluate policy options and develop bipartisan legislative solutions that will be considered by the full Committee," the Finance Committee members stated. "The goal is to develop a bipartisan legislative package that can be introduced and marked up this year."
The effort was first unveiled in May.
Specifically, Wyden and Crapo want to examine insurance companies' compliance with parity laws, which require insurers to cover mental health the same way they do physical health. The lawmakers also want increased access to telehealth, options for expanding the behavioral health care workforce, and better coordination of care and access, particularly for underserved communities.
To underscore the issues, Wyden invited a panel of veterans to share their experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the transition to civilian life, and the ways in which military service transformed their lives.
"It's hard to overstate how the confluence of what we're seeing in the news today and the recollections of 20 years, how those impact folks and their well-being," said Lach Litwer, who first enlisted in the Oregon National Guard 21 years ago. "What's happening this month, with the 20th anniversary of 9/11, you know, it's clear this is having a really outsized impact on people's state of minds, on what they're feeling and how they think about their own role … and the meaning of it all."
Stop Soldier Suicide, an advocacy group, notes veterans make up 9% of all homeless adults in the United States. Moreover, between 2009 and 2016, the nation saw a 52% increase in the number of veterans age 62 or older experiencing homelessness.
India Wynne has been part of nearly every staggering statistic.
Wynne served in the Marine Corps, but later lived unsheltered with a stress disorder and resulting substance abuse.
"As Marines, it is drilled into us to not ask for help or admit any kind of weakness. Pain is weakness leaving the body," Wynne said from the Lines for Life office. "Physical pain was ignored and mental pain was never spoken of. Because of this, I was unaware of any help that might be out there. Words like trauma, secondary trauma, hyper vigilance, triggers and PTSD were foreign to me."
Wynne almost became a suicide statistic.
"After my last suicide attempt, it was the words of a social worker that changed my life. I was diagnosed with PTSD and admitted to a 90-day PTSD program at a (Veterans Affairs center)," the former Marine said. "The diagnosis was scary, but also came as a huge relief. My life suddenly made sense. Alcohol, drugs, violent rages, suicidal ideation … were symptoms of a larger problem."
Oftentimes, before the diagnosis or treatment plan, call-takers at Lines for Life are the first stop for people in crisis. Lines for Life operates a military help line, offering help with unemployment, poverty, substance use, post-traumatic stress and thoughts of suicide. Lines for Life also assists with a national veterans crisis line.
"We need to start building the kind of mental health system that can respond to the realities of our mental wellness challenges," said Dwight Holton, CEO of Lines for Life. "You know, when you break your arm, nobody says, 'Well, I'm just gonna let it go.' When you break your arm, you go to urgent care or you go to your doctor … we need the same kind of system for mental illness so that when you're having a rough time, you know where to get help, you're not nervous about getting help, it's not stigmatized and it's easy to get the help."
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, visit: linesforlife.org/get-help-now/, call 800-273-8255 or text 273TALK to 839863.
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