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VA Defends Efforts As San Diego Tops List For Veteran Suicides In California

The VA San Diego Healthcare System in La Jolla is shown on Nov. 15, 2018.

Photo by Megan Wood / inewsource

Above: The VA San Diego Healthcare System in La Jolla is shown on Nov. 15, 2018.

The director of the VA San Diego Healthcare System defended the agency's efforts to lower the suicide rate, despite the latest data that shows the county had the highest number of suicides among veterans.

“Well, the numbers are high and I don’t want to say it represents a failure of what we’re doing. It just means we have to redouble our efforts and making sure we are engaging and getting veterans into care,” said Dr. Robert Smith, director of the VA San Diego.

The latest figures put out by the California Department of Public Health show 109 San Diego County veterans killed themselves in 2017 — more than the 90 veterans who committed suicide in Los Angeles County, which had the second highest number.

Over the last five years, the VA has emphasized outreach, working with groups like the San Diego Veterans Coalition. The VA has added space for mental health, including at the VA hospital in La Jolla, Smith said.

“We’re working to expand the clinic footprint both on campus here and in the community,” he said. "We’ve opened up a whole new clinic in Mission Valley, which looks at a particular mental health population.”

Roughly 20 veterans a day commit suicide nationwide, according to the VA. A rising number are younger veterans. President Trump signed an executive order last year to seamlessly transfer people from Pentagon care to the VA.

The VA in San Diego has begun seeing some of those patients, Smith said.

“One of the hard things to do is to reach out to veterans who may have a problem that they have minimized or that they have not sought care for while they were in service and make sure they know care is available at the VA,” he said.

In San Diego and nationally, guns remain the No. 1 means veterans used to kill themselves. The VA doesn’t want to frighten away veterans who own guns. The VA does offer gun locks, Smith said.

“You wouldn’t think a gun lock would be a particularly effective barrier, because it can be taken off. But just having that extra step that has someone take a pause, can in fact be very important,” he said.

The California Department of Public Health provided its latest data on veteran suicide. The San Diego County Medical Examiner provided a detailed listing of each veteran suicide over the past five years.

Smith points out that the national suicide rate as a whole continues to rise. Meaning, this is not just a problem isolated to veterans.

Veteran Suicides By County

San Diego County Veteran Suicides By Age

San Diego County Veteran Suicides By Method

The VA San Diego has revamped its efforts over the last five years in an attempt to bring down the number of suicides among veterans.


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Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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