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To Curb Suicides, VA Opens Services To Those With Less Than Honorable Discharges

Neal Doran is a staff psychologist and director of Clinical Improvement at th...

Photo by Matthew Bowler / KPBS

Above: Neal Doran is a staff psychologist and director of Clinical Improvement at the VA San Diego medical center, who directs suicide prevention program, June 3, 2017.

This summer the Veterans Health Administration is beginning to roll out a program targeting the number of veterans who commit suicide.

An estimated 20 veterans a day commit suicide.

In May, Veterans Administration Secretary David Shulkin told Congress that the VA wants bring down the number of suicides among veterans to zero. The VA cannot do that if it continues to not treat veterans who have less-than-honorable discharges, especially those with PTSD and other service-related illness, he said.

"When we say there are 20 veterans taking their life every day, we know this group is among the highest," Shulkin said. "No one wants to help them.”

A VA study reported that in 2014 only six of the 20 veterans who committed suicide received services from the Veterans Health Administration. Some of those vets were not eligible for VA services because of their discharge status.

Veterans with so-called "bad paper" discharges have always been allowed to use the ER for emergency care.

As part of an effort to cut down on the number of veterans who commit suicide, the Veterans Health Administration is opening up its emergency rooms to those with less-than-honorable discharges who are suffering from mental illness.

Starting Wednesday, the VA will also allow those veterans to access mental health services for 90 days, according to Neal Doran, a staff psychologist and director of clinical improvement at the VA San Diego Medical Center, who directs suicide prevention program at the VA San Diego.

“Anyone who feels suicidal can come into the ER and they will receive emergency treatment," Doran said. "This is for someone who feels like they are having a mental health emergency and not only will they be seen today and treated but they will get the services for the next three months.”

Veterans’ advocates applaud the change but groups like California-based Swords to Plowshares said the VA still is not going far enough to help veterans with less than honorable discharges. They are typically denied most VA benefits unless they can prove their illness is service-related.

Doran conceded that making the case that an illness is service-related can be difficult for someone struggling with mental health issues. Along with opening up the ER, the VA will also help vets apply for benefits.

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