A veteran died by suicide in the visitor parking lot of the Charles George VA Medical Center in North Carolina this weekend, the latest in an upsetting string of veteran deaths just a short distance away from possible help.
Hospital officials did not release any further details of the victim, but said the local Asheville Police Department is investigating the incident. The death happened just before 9 a.m. on Aug. 4.
Nearly 30 veterans have taken their own lives on VA medical campuses in the last two years, a figure that has prompted lawmakers to request more monitoring of parking lots and public areas for signs of individuals in distress.
The president will sign a new executive order on Tuesday creating a task force with a deadline of one year for aggressive new solutions to the problem.
At least some of those deaths appear to be in protest of problems with veteran benefits or care, but VA officials and some family members have said the majority appear to be individuals who believe that staff will be better prepared to handle the aftermath of their deaths.
Department officials have also said the rate of suicide on VA medical campuses has decreased in recent years, even as the number of veterans who take their own lives in public areas of those locations has risen.
Earlier this year, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told lawmakers that department officials have stepped up training for front-line personnel — police officers, parking attendants, receptionists and other staffers — to look for signs of emotional distress or potentially harmful behavior across the medical campuses.
In a statement, officials from the Charles George VA Medical Center highlighted that their facility has “many services for veterans who are struggling with mental health concerns, such as depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, military sexual trauma, and substance use disorders.”
VA has roughly 6,000 psychologists and 3,300 psychiatrists on its payroll nationwide, in addition to about 6,500 mental health nurses. Department officials have said fully staffing those positions remains a constant challenge given the shortfall of mental health specialists nationwide.
A new proposal would require VA to provide lawmakers with information on those veterans' benefits and medical background within days of the deaths.
In March, White House officials announced a new government-wide task force to look at new approaches to veteran and military suicide prevention. Wilkie, who is leading the effort, has said repeatedly that the issue remains his department’s top clinical priority.
According to department estimates, about 20 veterans a day take their own lives nationwide. Of that group, 14 of them have little to no contact with the department.
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.