Underwood Urges VA to Prioritize Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Services for Veterans During Coronavirus Pandemic

May 22, 2020
Press Release

WASHINGTON—Today, Representative Lauren Underwood (IL-14) continued her work to improve mental health and suicide prevention services for veterans by urging the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to prioritize mental health and suicide prevention services for veterans during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. On March 22, the VA reported that calls to the Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) have increased by 12%, and 20% of all calls are related to coronavirus. In the letter to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, Underwood expressed concern that the coronavirus pandemic could impact veterans’ mental health and risk for death by suicide. Underwood requested the VA provide a plan forward for addressing the long-term and short-term impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on veterans’ mental health and on the veteran suicide crisis.  

“Veterans face unique challenges when it comes to both mental health and suicide prevention—challenges that may be compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Suicide rates among veterans, especially those who do not use VA care, are already at crisis levels. It is essential that VA has the resources it needs to handle increased numbers of veterans in crisis and, at the same time, is planning ahead to provide for their long-term health and safety,” Underwood wrote.  

As a member of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the Servicewomen & Women Veterans Congressional Caucus, and the Women Veterans Task Force, Underwood has worked to improve veterans’ access to quality care and has worked to help ensure veterans receive the care they have earned. In May 2019, Underwood’s bipartisan legislation to ensure high-quality mental health and suicide prevention care for veterans passed the U.S House of Representatives unanimously. The Veterans’ Care Quality Transparency Act helps ensure both the VA and outside providers are offering veterans high-quality mental health and suicide prevention services. In September, Underwood introduced the ACE Veterans Act and the Post-9/11 Veteran Suicide Prevention Counseling Act to improve access to quality care for veterans. 

A copy of the letter can be found here and below.

May 21, 2020 

 

The Honorable Robert Wilkie 

Secretary 

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs 

810 Vermont Ave NW 

Washington, DC 20420 

Dear Secretary Wilkie:

I write to request information on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) plans to respond to both the long- and short-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on veterans’ mental health and on the veteran suicide crisis. I applaud the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) for proactively identifying mental health care as an additional resource need in its COVID-19 Response Plan and look forward to working with you to support these needs to best serve the veterans in VHA’s care. 

The effects of this pandemic on Americans’ mental health will be significant and wide-ranging, and experts—including those within VHA—have cautioned that the full scope of these effects may not be clear for months or years. Families are facing enormous stressors as they struggle to keep their job or small business, access health care, care for their dependents, or grieve the loss of a loved one. Our country’s mental health care system, which already had serious gaps, is now further strained by a pandemic that has “negatively affected many people’s mental health and created new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness and substance use disorders.” 

As you know, veterans face unique challenges when it comes to both mental health and suicide prevention—challenges that may be compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Suicide rates among veterans, especially those who do not use VA care, are already at crisis levels. I was deeply concerned when you reported on March 22 that calls to the Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) had increased by 12%, with 20% of all calls already related to COVID-19. It is essential that VA has the resources it needs to handle increased numbers of veterans in crisis and, at the same time, is planning ahead to provide for their long-term health and safety.  

The federal government’s response to COVID-19 must also be designed to anticipate and meet the specific needs of women veterans, veterans of color, and post-9/11 veterans. These veterans experience higher rates of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress that too often are connected to their time in service. They are also some of the most vulnerable to the negative economic effects of this pandemic: female veterans have been disproportionately affected by recent job losses, and the post-9/11 cohort comprises nearly half of the total number of unemployed veterans in America. 

As a member of the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs, I am committed to working with VA to address the economic, social, and emotional effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our veterans’ mental health. Therefore, I respectfully request that you provide a detailed update on VA’s efforts to prepare for and respond to the long- and short-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on veterans’ mental health and on the veteran suicide crisis by June 4, 2020. As part of this response, please include up-to-date information on changes in the volume of calls to VCL since March 22, 2020; the effects of COVID-19 on VCL call volume; and broad demographic information related to callers’ gender, age, and ethnicity. Additionally, please share how the Department is using resources appropriated in the CARES Act, and whether the Department has identified unmet needs that require additional funding or statutory changes.  

Sincerely, 

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