Sen. Tim Kaine

Sen. Tim Kaine visited veterans and employees of the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center on March 19, 2019, to talk about the bill he helped introduce to improve veterans' access to mental health. 

A suicide-prevention coordinator at every VA hospital.

Given reports on the number of military veterans who take their own lives under the burdens of their mental and emotional injuries, such a basic level of care seems an obvious necessity.

But it isn’t a mandate. Not yet.

Virginia’s senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, are among the sponsors of legislation to improve the Veterans Administration’s response to mental health needs and suicide prevention.

The legislation, cosponsored with Sen Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, would help the VA add more mental health experts, increase access to care in rural areas, and expand access to “non-traditional” therapy options such as yoga and animal therapy — although we might argue that these modalities have been around long enough, and have proved effective enough, to no longer be considered as “alternative” treatments.

"We need to focus on new measures and new strategies in promoting mental health among veterans," Mr. Kaine said recently at the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

And not just new measures and strategies, but also additional staff to implement these strategies. The legislation would authorize the VA to hire more mental health professionals, and would place at least one suicide-prevention coordinator in every hospital. Access to mental health for veterans in rural areas would be addressed by expanding VA telehealth services.

The legislation also seeks to hold the VA accountable for how it provides care and how it manages its resources.

Suicide is a tragic and disturbing underside of veterans affairs. An oft-quoted statistic had been that, on average, 20 U.S. veterans daily took their own lives. Last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs clarified that figure, saying that it referred to veterans, active-duty and other personnel combined.

The 2018 report cites the total as 20.6 suicides per day. Of these, 16.8 were veterans and 3.8 were active-duty service members, guardsmen and reservists, according to Stars and Stripes. That means 6,132 veterans and 1,387 service members die by suicide per year.

That number is shocking — and far, far too high.

“We’ve got to make sure that service members who’ve faithfully served our country receive the support they need when they transition to civilian life,” Mr. Warner said in a press statement.

And that sums it up well: America’s military men and women have given so much to serve our country, keep us safe at home and protect our nation’s interests abroad.

Indeed, those who have returned have sometimes given up almost everything in sacrifice — including their physical, mental and emotional health. If their trauma is so severe that it compels them to end their own lives just to escape the suffering, then they have given everything.

The nation owes them gratitude for their service, gratitude for their sacrifice — but it owes them much more. It owes them effective care, therapy, treatment and support to help them make the often difficult transition back into healthy living and civilian life.

The new veterans’ legislation strives to do just that. We support it.

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