Senior officials at the Veterans Administration debated internally how to downplay evidence of a stunning number of suicides and suicide attempts among veterans who were treated or had sought help at VA hospitals around the country, according to newly disclosed internal VA e-mails.
On Feb. 13, 2008, Ira Katz, the VA’s mental health director, and Ev Chasen, the agency’s chief communications director, exchanged e-mails discussing P.R. strategy for handling this troubling news, according to evidence made public Monday in a federal court case in Northern California.
The exchange came in the context of how to handle inquiries from CBS News, which was reporting on the surge of suicides among U.S. veterans – reaching an average of 18 per day – with part of that rise attributed to soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an e-mail headlined “Not for the CBS News Interview Request,” Katz notified Chasen that the VA had identified some 1,000 suicide attempts per month among war veterans treated by the VA.
“Shh!” Katz wrote to Chasen. “Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?”
Chasen responded to Katz with suggestions about how to avoid too much negative attention to the data.
“Is the fact that we’re stopping [suicides] good news, or is the sheer number bad news? And is this more than we’ve ever seen before?” Chasen wrote to Katz, adding:
“It might be something we drop into a general release about our suicide prevention efforts, which (as you know far better than I) prominently include training employees to recognize the warning signs of suicide.”
In testimony to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Dec. 12, 2007 – just two months before the e-mail exchange – Katz had stressed the VA’s successes in treating mental health problems and preventing suicides.
He also disputed that veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan face any special risk of suicide.
“VA's latest data do not demonstrate an increased risk of suicide among [Afghan and Iraqi theatre] veterans compared to the age and gender matched American population as a whole,” Katz said.
Three days after the testimony, on Dec. 15, Katz painted a grimmer picture in an e-mail to Brig. Gen. Michael J. Kussman, the Veteran Health Administration’s undersecretary for health.
Katz’s e-mail said that from the total population of U.S. veterans from all wars, an average of 18 vets commit suicide each day. Katz said the data, which the VA obtained from the Center for Disease Control, showed that 20 percent of suicides in the United States are identified as war veterans.
“VA’s own data demonstrate 4-5 suicides per day among those who receive care from us,” Katz wrote.
On March 20, 2008, CBS News reported that it had obtained an internal VA study showing that 1,784 vets who received VA services still committed suicide in 2005, an increase from 1,403 such suicides in 2001.
CBS News also quoted Rep. Bob Filner, D-California, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, complaining that the VA had withheld this important data from Congress.