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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Suicide Prevention Coordinators Assigned to Nation's Military Hospitals

From the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune:

Suicide prevention coordinators will be posted at the nation's military hospitals, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Nicholson said [earlier in the month], after an investigation into the death of Minnesota Marine veteran Jonathan Schulze found that more should be done to help potentially suicidal veterans.

Nicholson, who participated in a the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center for a new spinal injuries unit, also said in an interview afterward that the VA now plans around-the-clock acute psychiatric care to deal with the surge of combat veterans returning from Iraq.

"There is a heightened worry and awareness and concern universally on our part about suicide," said Nicholson, who oversees an agency of 240,000 employees. "We want to do everything we can do to prevent it and we're taking these steps posthaste."

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Schulze's family said that five days before he died, he was turned away from the VA hospital in St. Cloud even though he told staff members twice that he was suicidal. But the VA investigators found that claim to be "unsubstantiated," and said records showed no evidence of those statements.

However, a report by the VA's Office of the Inspector General criticized a social worker for not intervening promptly the day that Schulze went to the St. Cloud hospital. One of the report's authors, Dr. George Wesley, said in an interview Friday that when the social worker tried to read Schulze's electronic medical records, which were kept at the VA hospital in Minneapolis, the computer wouldn't work.

Jim Schulze and his wife, Marianne, said they were pleased at the effort the inspector general put into the report. "If what we're doing is going to help other GIs, then it was worth telling our story," said Marianne Schulze, Jonathan's stepmother. "As we've both been saying all along, something had to get done, and hopefully the VA will follow through with other veterans that something gets done."

Proof that strength in numbers will be key to moving this issue forward so we can successfully care for our returning troops:

Two federal inspectors with the VA's Office of the Inspector General who investigated the Schulze suicide said Friday that they acted with urgency because Nicholson and several members of Congress requested the report, and because of a high level of national interest. "It was a very fast turnaround for a report of this scope," said Dana Moore, a deputy assistant inspector general. ...

Wesley said he and Dr. John Daigh, the Inspector General's Office's assistant inspector for health care inspections, briefed staff members of the U.S. Senate and House veterans affairs committees on Thursday. They said they will work to ensure that recommendations in the report will be followed.

Among them was that VA hospitals rethink their approach to suicide prevention and screen veterans more comprehensively for mental health treatment. It also said the VA should more fully document conversations with patients and take the lead in contacting them about their care instead of placing the burden on the patient.

The report said the VA hospital in St. Cloud should review its screening questionnaire to make it more comprehensive and detailed, and to adopt a "multidisciplinary" approach to screening, meaning that more clinicians should be involved to more fully assess a veteran's inclination toward suicide.

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