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President Obama orders VA to expand suicide prevention services

President Obama issued an executive order Friday tasking the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand its suicide prevention and mental health services.

Under the order, VA is expected to increase its veteran crisis line by 50 percent by the end of the year; ensure that a veteran in distress is given access to a trained mental health worker in 24 hours or less; and launch a national 12-month suicide prevention campaign to educate veterans about available mental health services.

The order reinforces some initiatives that VA has already undertaken.


In April, VA announced that it would hire 1,600 mental health clinicians to meet surging demand, and the order instructs the agency to use loan repayment programs and scholarships, among other strategies, to recruit those professionals by June 2013.

The order also asks VA to create at least 15 pilot projects in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services to address unfilled mental health staff vacancies and long wait times. The pilots, to be created within 180 days, will test the effectiveness of partnerships with community and rural health clinics as well as substance abuse treatment centers. 

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Previous estimates have indicated that at least 6,000 veterans died by suicide annually in recent years; data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that about 18 veteran suicides occur daily.

VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki praised the order in a statement released Friday morning, saying that the agency would work to implement its requirements immediately.

"History shows that the costs of war will continue to grow for a decade or more after the wars have ended," Shinseki said. "The mental health and well-being of our brave men and women who have served the Nation is the highest priority for the Department of Veterans Affairs."

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The order targets not only immediate concerns about mental health care staffing and suicide prevention measures, but also long-term goals in understanding the science behind combat-related psychological wounds like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Along with the Department of Defense and other federal agencies, VA is directed to develop a research plan that includes efforts to better diagnose and treat PTSD and TBI.

The president delivered the order Friday as part of his visit to Fort Bliss in Texas, which marks the two-year anniversary of the end of combat operations in Iraq. He addressed troops at the Army post and held a roundtable discussion with service members and their families.

Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter at NBC News. Follow her on Twitter here.

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