New bill to get better look at veteran suicides and over-medication

    Medication
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    Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) has partnered with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Arkansas) to introduce new legislation to help address the over-prescription of medications to U.S. veterans. Called the Veterans Over-medication and Suicide Prevention Act, the measure would direct the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct an independent study on the deaths of veterans under the organization’s care who’ve died by suicide or drug overdose.

    A report, released in September 2019 by the VA, confirmed that at least 60,000 veterans nationwide had committed suicide from 2017 to 2018. It also found that between 2005 and 2017, the average number of suicide deaths among U.S. veterans rose from 86.6 per day, to 124.4

    Army veteran Tasha Mitchell, 29, relates to these harsh realities.

    She says that the military often compounds problems people are struggling with before they enlist. She had already dealt with depression, family instability, and homelessness as a youth before she signed the papers. It’s a background she soon discovered was not uncommon among her fellow soldiers.

    From there, she said, it feels like a domino effect of being diagnosed, misdiagnosed, prescribed a medication, then another and so on in a cycle. “When you get out [of the military], the medications, some of them are irrelevant and not really necessary,” says Mitchell, who was discharged in May 2018 at the rank of sergeant, with a tour in Afghanistan behind her.

    “Some of them do help,” she says. “But, I feel like unless the doctor can actually tell you what’s wrong with you, what’s going on with your body, then as fast as they prescribe drugs to you, they don’t do the research to actually find out what’s wrong with you. It’s more like, ‘Take these pills, it’s going to help with this and that.’ But you don’t know my exact symptoms.”

    The bipartisan legislation would require a National Academies of Science study in order to get some clearer numbers. That includes the number of veterans who died by suicide over the last five years, a total number of vets involved in violent, suicidal or accidental death and the prevalence of medications or illegal drugs in the systems of those veterans. The study would also analyze the number of instances in which the veteran was on multiple medications, as prescribed by a VA doctor. An accurate percentage of vets who’ve received non-medication treatment and a deep look at programs which collaborate with the VA, like Medicaid agencies.

    “I have worked across party lines to hold the VA accountable because too often our veterans have been prescribed drugs as a first resort before exploring other safer ways of getting the care they need,” said Baldwin. “I’m proud to continue that work by leading this bipartisan effort with Sen. Sullivan to confront the over-medication of veterans and prevent suicide deaths.”

    Mitchell has dealt with VA’s in several states including in Texas, Kentucky and now Wisconsin. Generally speaking, she says she has been unimpressed by the care she’s received. In one example, Mitchell recalls a therapist in another state actually falling asleep while she explained what she was dealing with. Another therapist she saw after coming to Wisconsin struck her as judgmental.

    In other instances, Mitchell says she only got to see a doctor for a few minutes before a prescription was written. Even before officially joining the military, she says many soldiers are told by mentors not to tell Military Entrance Processing (MEPS) about issues like ADHD, depression or other things which may affect recruitment or placement into a particular role.

    “I have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder),” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “I’m on four different medications for PTSD. Then you throw in the insomnia, because of the medications. So it’s like a domino effect. You’re giving me medications for PTSD, but that medication that you’re giving me is causing other issues.”

    Memories of combat aren’t the only things that trouble veterans with mental health issues. “You have to think, a lot of military men and women go in right out of high school,” she explained. “So there’s a lot of things that we don’t know. Or there’s a lot of things that we didn’t grasp while we were in the military. So when we get out, it’s like you’re putting your 17-year-old child outside and saying, ‘Here’s some tools. You figure out the rest. That’s what the military does.’”

    Other issues like sexual assault in the military, as well as a plethora of physical ailments due to injuries, stress or exposure to hazardous materials only make things worse.

    Sullivan, a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, recalls his own time in military service as a reason he is sponsoring the legislation with Baldwin.

    “Throughout my service as an officer in the Marine Corps Reserve, I witnessed the struggles our servicemen and women experience in their search for proper care,” he said. “It is our collective obligation – as members of Congress and as American citizens – to better understand the factors that contribute to veteran suicide, bolster preventative measures and prevent these tragedies from occurring. Making sure that the VA has a holistic understanding of the information needed to stem veteran suicide is a critical step in this effort, and one that this bill makes great strides in addressing.”

    Isiah Holmes
    Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.