Shinseki Takes on Substance Abuse

VA secretary acknowledges the department must look at its role in the problem.

In a powerful and compassionate speech delivered Wednesday at the fourth annual Suicide Prevention Conference hosted by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki zeroed in on substance abuse as a root cause of suicides and veteran homelessness.

Shinseki acknowledged that the VA needs to take a look at the role it plays in substance abuse. “And if substance abuse is the leading cause of homelessness, and homelessness, substance abuse, and suicides are all related, do we address substance abuse sufficiently in our consideration of suicides?” Shinseki asked.

He then pointed to VA’s pill pushing habit: “Are we courageous enough to ask whether our medication policies contribute to homelessness and suicides as well? Several years ago, when I asked whether we over-medicated some of our veterans at a forum on veterans' homelessness, that question received a standing ovation from the attendees -- the question, not me. They thought it was a serious issue.”

As I have reported over the past year and a half in our “Broken Warrior” series, the military over-medicates troops, a policy VA continues in its care of vets. The Defense Department and VA have spent just under $2 billion on psychotropic drugs since 2001.

Hopefully this speech marks recognition throughout VA that when it comes to substance abuse, the department has played a major role in causing the problem and it needs to find a better solution.

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