The gap in providing mental health services to those who need it is growing.
Help for one segment of the population — veterans — continues to get delayed and overlooked.
Yet so many veterans are struggling with depression and other mental illnesses that it's being called an epidemic by congressional leaders.
The statistics are grim:
• Veterans account for 18 percent of all deaths from suicide among U.S. adults. Sixty-five percent of all veterans who died from suicide in 2014 were 50 years of age or older.
• Since 2001, U.S. adult civilian suicides increased 23 percent, while veteran suicides increased 32 percent in the same time period. After controlling for age and gender, this makes the risk of suicide 21 percent greater for veterans.
• Since 2001, the rate of suicide among veterans who use VA services increased by 8.8 percent, while the rate of suicide among veterans who do not use VA services increased by 38.6 percent.
Fortunately, efforts are under way to get veterans the help they deserve.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, along with several other members of Congress, are urging the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure that no call from a veteran in crisis goes unanswered.
The VA committed to implementing several recommendations put forward in a February 2016 VA inspector general report by last Friday, Sept. 30, 2016. Days after that target date, federal lawmakers are calling on VA leadership to provide more information regarding its efforts.
In a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, Klobuchar and the other members of Congress asked the VA to share what it is doing to ensure that veterans in crisis can turn to the Veterans Crisis Line.
"Troubling to us are recent reports showing that the Veterans Crisis Line has not served as the beacon of hope it was intended to be," the lawmakers wrote. "Instead, it has become yet another source of bureaucratic frustration for too many veterans — with one third of calls being diverted to an outside contractor, and many of those being directed to an answering machine or being put on hold. This is unacceptable and disingenuous to our veterans who have served in the armed forces and are in need of help."
Some progress has been made on the issue.
Last year, federal legislation was enacted to help prevent veteran suicides, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. It helps expand access to mental health services for veterans by establishing a loan repayment program to help the VA recruit more psychiatric specialists, enhances resources for veterans transitioning into civilian life, and improves the VA's ability to address traumatic brain injuries.
Last month, the national VFW organization launched a Mental Wellness Campaign, leveraging the power of nearly 1.7 million members in more than 6,600 VFW posts around the world. The campaign's goal is to raise awareness, foster community engagement, improve research, and provide intervention for veterans, service members, and their loved ones who may be suffering from invisible injuries or emotional stress.
To its credit, the Osakis VFW is doing its part to support the campaign with a spaghetti dinner fundraiser on Saturday, Oct. 15 from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Proceeds from the dinner, or $500, will be donated to the Eagle's Healing Nest in Sauk Centre.
It may seem like a small gesture, but support like that at the local level can have a big impact on veterans who find themselves in a long, dark tunnel looking for a little light.