Preventing Veteran Suicide

Floor Speech

Date: Sept. 24, 2015
Location: Washington, DC


Mr. Speaker, I rise today to recognize September as Suicide Prevention Month. I want to thank my colleague, Kyrsten Sinema, for joining me and putting together this Special Order hour. For the next hour, we will discuss an issue that is very important to me and should be unacceptable in a nation of our resources: veteran suicide.

A veteran in this country commits suicide every 65 minutes. That is 22 lives extinguished every day.

As the father of a veteran, a doctor who worked at a VA hospital in northern Michigan, and the chairman of the Health Subcommittee on Veterans' Affairs, I know that the challenges of military life do not end once our service members retire from Active Duty. The mental wounds of war may be invisible, but they are no less real to the young men and women suffering from them.

Facing high unemployment rates, the stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder, and a loss of military fellowship, returning veterans often face a crisis of confidence at the very moment they should feel nothing but relief and rest.

Congress did make a real impact early this year when we passed the Clay Hunt SAV Act, which is helping the VA put the very best mental healthcare professionals to work for our veterans and creating peer support groups to help catch those transitioning service members who may otherwise fall through the cracks. However, so much more needs to be done.

I am grateful to my colleagues for standing with me today for our most vulnerable veterans and their families. I look forward to hearing what they have to say and to working with them to end veteran suicide.


I thank the gentlewoman from Arizona (Ms. Sinema). I really appreciate your comments and your concern for this significant problem.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to take a moment to outline something that I have become aware of in my time here in office.

While this problem is very monumental, there are many small things that the VA can do right now to make a difference. One of these changes can be made by the VA immediately.

I would like to read a letter I received recently from an American Legion representative in my district that illustrates the problem better than I could.

Dear Dr. Benishek:

Here is the situation. Recently I encountered a suicidal veteran from the Sault area who had severe PTSD, 100 percent VA disabled. He called me on a Wednesday hysterical and said that he was contemplating suicide. He was traveling around with his wife in the car at the time. I thought this was a very dangerous situation.

After several back-and-forth conversations with him, I found out he was not taking any medicines and had not seen his VA psychiatrist in a long time because, as he put it, the psychiatrist was not helping him and it seemed that he didn't really care.

He insisted that he stay at Wilwin, the American Legion veterans facility, but I told him we needed his psychiatrist's okay.

As a veteran myself, I thought I should try to help him the best that I could. So I called the VA Suicide Hotline to get answers on how I should handle the situation.

Here's the problem. I called the Iron Mountain VA. The call started out saying, if you are having a medical or mental health emergency, please hang up and dial 911.

If you are having thoughts of hurting yourself and want to talk to a mental health professional, please hang up and dial 1-800-273-8255.

If you are thinking of committing suicide, you are already frustrated to the point that you would be glad to talk to anyone, even if it is someone at the VA.

Can you imagine a veteran in this position even having a paper and pencil in hand to write the number down?

If he is unable to get the correct number the first time, he must redial the VA, go through the whole spiel again and, hopefully, write the number on a paper the second or third time before he can try dialing. Once dialed, the voice comes on the phone and says, if you are a veteran push 1 and so on.

When I called the hotline after I pushed 1, listened to music for several minutes before a voice came on the phone, she told me that she was not a veteran, nor did she know much about PTSD veterans. What I needed was advice on how to handle the veteran I was working with, which she did give me.

How many veterans have committed suicide because of the VA's red tape?

Here's a solution. When the VA is called and the veteran is contemplating suicide or hurting himself, you should be able to push 1 to get a direct line to the suicide hotline. It should automatically register that the call is coming through the VA system and, yes, it is a veteran calling.

This constituent was able to get the veteran he referred to the help that he needed, but he raised an incredibly good point that I brought up repeatedly with the VA.

The VA told me it would take 6 months to change from an 800 number to simply dial 1. This is unacceptable. I call on the VA again today to make this change immediately.


Thank you very much, Mrs. Walorski. I really appreciate your comments.

I think Dr. Murphy brought up a good point when he was speaking. We just recently in this House passed the 21st Century Cures Act, H.R. 6.

That has been endorsed by a wide variety of professional and medical organizations, such as the American Association for Cancer Research and The Cure Alliance. We passed this bill by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 344-77.

This is a piece of legislation that is going to change the way we do research at the NIH, that is going to change health care for all Americans. There is no reason that we shouldn't be able to pass a mental health care bill similar to that with a wide bipartisan effort.

Today Ms. Sinema and I are leading a bipartisan group of Members of Congress to make mental health care an issue on which to move forward, and it has really been a great way to get this started.

I yield to Ms. Sinema if she would like to add a few more thoughts in that regard.