WASHINGTON, D.C. - Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), has expressed deep concern about the events surrounding the suicide of Jonathan Schulze. According to news reports, Mr. Schulze, a 25 year-old veteran of the war in Iraq, sought help from two VA hospitals prior to his suicide and had been told he was on a waiting list at the time he took his life.
In a letter sent yesterday to VA Acting Under Secretary for Health Dr. Michael Kussman, Chairman Akaka asked for an expedited analysis of the events preceding Mr. Schulze's death, as well as a description of what actions VA is taking to ensure that delays for vital mental health care do not occur in the future.
A copy of the letter is attached below:
January 29, 2007
Michael J. Kussman, MD
Acting Under Secretary for Health
Department of Veterans Affairs
Washington, D.C. 20420
Dear Dr. Kussman,
Recent news reports on the tragic suicide of Jonathan Schulze, a veteran who served our country in Iraq, are very disturbing. According to news articles, Mr. Schulze sought treatment from the Minneapolis VA Medical Center in December and after failing to receive help sought care from the St. Cloud VA Medical Center. According to the veteran's family, staff at the St. Cloud VA Medical Center placed Mr. Schulze on a waiting list for treatment. Mr. Schulze later committed suicide at the age of 25.
I ask that you provide me, in my capacity as Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, with an expedited analysis of the events preceding Mr. Schulze's death, at both the Minneapolis and St. Cloud facilities, and the steps VA is taking to address any problems in these facilities to ensure that such a delay or denial of inpatient care does not occur in the future. To the extent there is material that you believe should not be shared beyond me and Committee staff, please so indicate.
I am concerned that reports of VA's failure to respond to Mr. Schulze's request for help may indicate systemic problems in VA's capacity to identify, monitor, and treat veterans who are suicidal. You will recall the statement of Dr. Fran Murphy, the former Deputy Under Secretary for Health, when she noted last year that the promise of the best medical care is ?a hollow one if veterans who are struggling with the aftermath of severe trauma do not have timely access to quality mental health... .?
For a veteran at risk of suicide, contact with VA must trigger a response that will prevent suicide and provide ongoing monitoring and care. VA must have in place rigorous protocols to help veterans who self-identify as having suicidal thoughts, and VA must have the resources to provide intensive care for these veterans when they need it.
For veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there may be additional risks for suicide. I have been advised that epidemiological findings indicate that rates of suicide are greatest in the first five to ten years after diagnosis of most serious mental disorders, which suggests that new veterans receiving mental health services may be at greater risk for suicide than the population of those with earlier military service. VA must be vigilant in its monitoring and support of our recent veterans who may be at risk of suicide.
In 2004, VA's mental health experts developed a series of initiatives to improve VA's capacity to prevent suicide among veterans as part of a comprehensive mental health strategic plan. It is my understanding that all the suicide prevention initiatives have not been implemented. I ask that you inform me of VA's efforts to implement these suicide prevention initiatives and your intentions to develop and carry out additional initiatives to prevent suicide among recent veterans.
I await your findings in this matter.
DANIEL K. AKAKA