The Department of Veterans Affairs is taking steps to remedy the problem of suicide in the veteran community.
Dr. Nicole Braida is the Associate Chief of Staff for Mental Health at the South Texas VA. She says that over-prescription and misuse of opioid medication has created problems for the veteran community, leading to suicides and premature deaths.
"When you use opioids for chronic pain, it causes the veteran to become tolerant to the opioids. The pain doesn't get treated, it gets worse," Braida said.
"The person using the opioids may not understand the extent to which the opioid is contributing to their overall health status," she explained. "When they combine opioids with alcohol or with other drugs like benzodiazepines, they put themselves at an extremely high risk of premature death."
In some cases, chronic pain can drive veterans to take their own lives.
"We'll end up seeing numbers of veterans coming into our ER and say that their pain is uncontrolled and they're suicidal," Braida said. "Sometimes they'll talk to their primary care doctor."
The South Texas VA is working to integrate alternative pain management methods across its specialties. It has a Complex Pain Clinic and Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center, which are equipped to offer different types of intervention to veterans in severe pain.
A screening program called Recovery Engagement and Coordination for Health – Veterans Enhanced Treatment (REACH VET) is helping in the fight against veteran suicide. REACH VET, put together by the VA and the National Institutes of Health, assesses suicide risk factors whenever veterans go to the doctor. Benzodiazepine and opioid use are among those factors. Using predictive models, the program can connect veterans to care before they develop suicidal ideations.
Recent research suggests that 20 veterans die by suicide each day, putting them at greater risk than the general public.