WASHINGTON — Seeking to implement the most effective methods of preventing suicide by female military veterans, the House passed a bill authored by Rep. Julia Brownley by voice vote Tuesday.
Women veterans are six times as likely to commit suicide as non-veteran women, according to studies conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The National Institute on Mental Health also has conducted studies in the past two years pointing to the alarming trend.
“We can and we must do more to address the epidemic of suicide among our women veterans,” Brownley said after passage of her first stand-alone bill. “We know that suicide can be prevented, but we need to work harder to understand the root causes. This bill is an important step forward toward that goal.”
Brownley's bill adds women-specific references to the U.S. Code regarding Veterans Benefits and establishes ways of measuring the effectiveness of suicide prevention efforts involving women veterans.
The bill passed out of the Veterans Affairs Committee, on which Brownley serves, in September. But until last week, there was no corresponding Senate measure. If the corresponding bill passes the Senate, the two versions will be combined in conference, voted on by both bodies and, if approved, forwarded to the president for his signature.
Before the House vote, Caitlin Thompson, director of suicide prevention and community engagement at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said a variety of efforts are already underway to prevent suicides. For one, veterans mentioning a thought of suicide have their records flagged so that all with access know of the potential crisis.
The VA also seeks to make sure that there's collaboration within a treatment team, depending on individual needs and based on clinical practice guidelines, she said. That might involve medication management, group therapy and safety planning, including follow-up if a patient misses an appointment. For victims of military sexual trauma, each facility has a designated coordinator, she added.
As for determining what works, as the legislation proposes, the VA has been working on that, she said.
“We're certainly still learning about what works and what doesn't work,” she said.
The VA found that suicide risk doubles for young female veterans between 18 to 29 years old.
Robert Bossarte, director of epidemiology at the Veterans Health Administration, said recent studies have shown suicide trends unique to women veterans. One is that rates fall when women get help from mental health specialists.
And while separation from active duty service is seen as a factor in suicides, “the patterns are different than they are for men,” he said Tuesday. Over three to five years, suicide rates remain stable for women while they gradually decline among men, he said.
The Camarillo-based Gold Coast Veterans Foundation sees angry veterans but not ones in crisis, said Director J.C. Oberst, a 28-year Navy veteran. Those in crisis are referred to the crisis line at the VA, he said.
“None of them (women) have expressed suicidal thoughts to me, but when we sit down and do their case work, we get services offered by the VA and the Vet Center, both run by the federal agency, and then, if they don't want to do that, we look at the nonprofit and private sector.
“Suicide is certainly an issue with a lot of veterans. They just kind of struggle with connecting. They come back from having a close-knit group of friends to your community, and they just don't fit.”
Ventura County's veterans services officer Mike McManus said he doesn't have good statistics on the problem locally but hadn't heard of an “explosion” of female veteran suicide cases, “or male veteran suicides, for that matter,” although he knew of two recent male veteran suicides. He said that 95 percent of the county's 42,000 veterans are men.
McManus also noted that mental health services have improved at the VA clinic in Oxnard.
Reps. Ralph Abraham, R-Alabama, and Mark Takano, D-Riverside, and Brownley all spoke in favor of the measure on the floor Tuesday.
Brownley said the country's 2 million female veterans is a rapidly increasing demographic and that her bill was endorsed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion, among others.
“One human life unnecessarily lost is one too many,” she said before the bill was passed.
Brownley's bill had 21 House sponsors, including California Democrats Loretta Sanchez, of Anaheim, Michael Honda, of Santa Clara, Doris Matsui, of Sacramento, and Zoe Lofgren, of San Jose.
Brownley's bill also includes a provision for treating veterans who served in classified missions, requiring the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide guidance to mental health care workers on “how best to engage” such -women seeking their services.
The department noted last year that the suicide rate was greatest within the first three years after discharge from military service. The suicide rate among female veterans is about a third of their male counterparts.
A January 2015 study by three academic experts attempted to identify the causes of female veteran suicide victims, including the prevalence of prior sexual trauma. The article analyzed data from 173,969 suicides in 23 states across the country — though not California — and found that, from 2000 to 2010, suicide rates for non-veteran females rose 13 percent while it rose 40 percent for veteran females. Female suicides reached a rate of 5.4 per 100,000 women, while female veterans suicides reached 34.6 per 100,000.
The study found that factors linked to experiences before military service also likely had an impact on the suicide rate of veterans.
“For example, adverse childhood experiences have been shown to increase the risk of a suicide attempt and may serve as motivating factors for selecting military service — essentially providing an escape route from suboptimal family environments,” the authors, which included Bossarte, wrote.