Patty in the News

The number of suicides among veterans in the Spokane region dropped dramatically last year, according to newly released records.

In response to a Spokesman-Review request for information, the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center reported nine suicides from July 2008 to July 2009, including three veterans who had contact with the medical center.

Since that reporting period, there has been one other suicide of a veteran who had not sought treatment at Spokane VA, bringing to six the total number of suicides in calendar year 2009. In addition, there were 33 confirmed failed suicide attempts among Spokane-area veterans last year.

That’s down markedly from the number reported by the Spokane VA from July 2007 to July 2008 – 21 veterans in the Spokane VA service killed themselves, including 14 who had contact with the medical center.

Sharon Helman, the former director of the Spokane VA, reported the drop to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who had requested information on veteran suicides and what was being done at Spokane VA to fill critical mental health care positions.

“I hope you can assure me that you have addressed this situation and have systems in place to avoid it in the future,” Murray wrote to Helman in December. Helman was reassigned last month to a VA medical center in Illinois.

The exchange between Helman and Murray came at a time of increased military suicides nationally as the Iraq and Afghan conflicts create a new generation of combat veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has reported that suicide rates nationally among veterans 18 to 29 years old increased 26 percent from 2005 to 2007 and continued to climb to record levels in 2009.

A year ago, the VA’s Office of Medical Investigations completed a report on a spike in veteran suicides in the Spokane VA service area in 2008.

Inspectors found that the methods used by the medical center “to identify veterans who have committed suicide may be inadequate.”

For example, for the July 2007 to July 2008 period, the Spokane VA initially reported nine suicides. That number rose to 21 after the Spokane VA made efforts to improve its reporting of veteran suicides by coordinating with the Spokane County medical examiner’s office and local mental health practitioners about veteran suicides and suicide attempts, Helman told Murray last month.

In July the medical center’s psychiatric staff members wrote Helman a letter in which they refused to accept new patients because of their already “huge caseloads,” prompting Murray’s inquiry about efforts to fill behavioral health vacancies.

Helman told Murray last month that Spokane VA had taken steps to fill vacancies and “eliminate the number of veterans seeking appointments who have to wait more than 30 days to be seen.”

A new chief of behavioral health and two outpatient psychiatrists will join Spokane VA by mid-February, Helman said.

In the past six months, the medical center has hired a suicide prevention case manager and part-time administrative assistant, as well as a nurse specializing in depression management.

In addition, five psychiatrists from the Puget Sound VA Medical Center are being trained to provide mental health treatment via video conferencing to Spokane VA patients.

Helman told Murray that last year’s staffing shortages were due largely to national competition for mental health professionals at a time of unexpected staff departures at Spokane VA.