Tonawanda News

September 26, 2013

Schumer seeks better VA mental health protocol

Staff reports
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer is calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to review their mental health protocols and improve communication in the wake of the Washington D.C. Navy Yard shooting earlier this month.

Aside from improving the way it handles mental health assessments and treatment, Schumer is recommending Veteran Affairs set up a joint Emergency Psychiatric Response Center that would work with the Department of Defense, local and state law enforcement. The call follows the Navy Yard shootings by former Navy reservist Aaron Alexis, who Schumer said “fell through the cracks” in regard to mental health treatment.

“Now, we must do all we can to prevent an incident like this one from re-occurring and one crucial action we must take is to shed light on a larger issue: mental health conditions among veterans. Our brave veterans simply should not fall through the cracks upon returning home,” Schumer said. “We must remove the stigma of mental disorders that prevents veterans in upstate New York from seeking treatment.”

Schumer said the national response center would be open 24-hours a day and would help ensure that law enforcement can easily identify vets that need help to the eight VA medical centers and 35 community-based outpatient clinics in upstate New York. Two are based in Niagara County, one in Lockport and one in Niagara Falls.

Alexis reportedly told police he was hearing voices, but never sought an appointment from a mental health specialist. Alexis went to two different VA medical center emergency rooms and was released after being prescribed medication to treat insomnia. Schumer said Alexis should have been treated by mental health professionals.

Schumer said that it could also help with the treatment of veterans that do not intend to hurt others, but those that might be suicidal. Over the past few years, military suicides have continued to increase. In 2012, there were 349 suicides among active-duty troops, the most ever recorded according to the Pentagon, up from 301 the year before. More American soldiers died from suicide last year than from combat in Afghanistan, Schumer said.

Schumer also noted that the VA has taken the initiative in other areas to address mental health issues amongst veterans. For example, the VA has added more rural and mobile clinics to ensure that more veterans have access to health care no matter where they live. The VA has also provided Mental Health Treatment Coordinators to be assigned to each veteran that receives specialty mental care to ensure that every veteran who is seeking help has a single point of contact.

They’ve made progress, but there’s still more that can be done, the senator said.

“And the VA assures me they will,” Schumer said in a conference call with reporters.

Contact reporter Joe Olenick at 439-9222, ext. 6241 or follow him on Twitter @joeolenick.