The VA and Congress have the power to save women veterans’ lives, right now

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

When I dreamed of joining the military, I knew it wouldn’t be an easy dream to realize. I knew I’d have to push myself past my limits and that I could be required to risk my life. Over my 14 years in the South Dakota Army National Guard, including service in Iraq, all of that and more came to fruition.

But I failed to predict what would be the most difficult parts of service. They came after I took off the uniform, after war wreaked havoc on my body. They were the experiences of being dismissed and feeling misunderstood by the very system that promised to take care of me: the Department of Veterans Affairs.

While every veteran will inevitably face challenges navigating an imperfect system, women veterans have historically been overlooked and underserved by the VA. Much progress has been made in recent decades, but with lives at stake, it’s not enough. According to the VA, between 2020 and 2021, the suicide rate among women veterans jumped 24.1%—nearly four times higher than the 6.3% increase among male veterans.

The reasons for the staggering rate of suicide among women veterans are being uncovered by DAV (Disabled American Veterans) in its new report, Women Veterans: The Journey to Mental Wellness. DAV takes a deep dive into the unique factors that put women veterans at risk of suicide and the VA’s failures to appropriately address those factors. Armed with this information, DAV makes an urgent call to action: Congress and the VA must address glaring gaps in mental health care and drastically improve suicide prevention efforts among women veterans.

For example, a common factor contributing to suicide risk among women veterans is military sexual trauma (MST), which includes assault and harassment. Among veterans enrolled in VA care, an astounding 1 in 3 women report having experienced MST. The VA recognizes that MST is an independent risk factor for suicide and is associated with other mental health diagnoses, such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that are linked to additional increased risks for suicidal thoughts and behavior.

Yet the VA’s go-to model for predicting suicidality and intervening with high-risk veterans does not even take MST into account. How can this model effectively serve a population in which an estimated one-third has experienced sexual trauma? Simply put, it can’t. Such oversights will inevitably fail to prevent suicide among women veterans.

Additional factors that put women veterans at risk include high rates of intimate partner violence; substance use disorder; pregnancy in which the mother has preexisting mental health conditions, as many women veterans do; and menopause. The VA must fully incorporate the experiences of women veterans into its suicide prevention efforts and the mental health care it provides, as well as address barriers in accessing gender-specific care.

DAV’s report makes over 50 potentially lifesaving recommendations that offer a road map to that end. They include:

- Make MST a central pillar of suicide prevention efforts within the VA.

- Require VA-contracted providers—including maternity care providers—be trained in suicide prevention and issues affecting women veterans.

- Create a three-digit number, with a veteran option, for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

- Assess the need for more women veteran-specific residential rehabilitation programs for substance use disorder.

We all sign up to serve knowing sacrifices will be demanded. We understand we may have to put our bodies and our lives on the line. And we trust that when we return, we will get the care we deserve and earned.

I implore Congress and the VA to consider DAV’s recommendations and to act quickly.