Transcript: Dr. Susan McCutcheon’s testimony on the VA’s handling of military sexual assault, PTSD & suicides

Partial transcript of testimony of Dr. Susan J. McCutcheon, National Mental Health Director, Family Services, Women’s Mental Health and Military Sexual Trauma, Department of Veterans Affairs, on the VA’s handling of post traumatic stress disorders and suicides of service members who suffered military sexual assault. The hearing before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel was held on Feb. 26, 2014:

Good morning, Chairman Gillibrand, Ranking Member Graham, and members of the subcommittee. Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the Department of Veterans Affairs health care services for veterans who’ve experienced sexual trauma while serving on active duty or active duty for training, which is known as military sexual trauma or MST.

I would also like to thank the veteran panel for their detailed testimony of their struggles and the courage to share their stories with us today.

VA is committed to ensuring that eligible veterans have access to the health care services that they need to recover from MST.

To this end, VA has been developing and executing initiatives to provide counseling and care to veterans who’ve experienced MST, monitor MST-related screening and treatment, provide VA staff with training, and inform veterans about our available services.

Fortunately, recovery is possible after experiences of MST and the Veterans Health Administration has services spanning the full continuum of care to assist veterans in these efforts.

Recognizing that many survivors of sexual trauma do not disclose their experiences unless asked directly, it is VA policy that all veterans seen for health care are screened for experiences of MST.

Veterans who screen positive are offered a referral for mental health services.

All VHA health care for physical and mental health conditions related to MST is provided free of charge. Receipt of free MST-related services is entirely separate from the disability compensation process through the Veterans Benefit Administration, and service connection is not required for this free treatment.

Every VA medical center provides MST-related outpatient care for both mental and physical health conditions. Complementing these outpatient services VA has mental health residential rehabilitation treatment programs and in-patient mental health programs to assist our veterans who need more intensive treatment or support.

We have MST coordinators at every VA medical center who will assist veterans in accessing these services.

It can take tremendous courage for veterans to seek out help after experiencing MST. Fortunately, VHA data shows continually increasing rates of veterans seeking care.

Ensuring staff have the training they need to work sensitively and effectively with veterans who’ve experienced MST is a priority for VA. All VA mental health and primary care providers are required to complete a mandatory training on MST.

The VA’s national MST support team hosts monthly teleconference training calls open to all VA staff on topics related to MST. Content on suicide and sexual trauma has also been included in other MST-specific training efforts.

In addition, as part of a strong commitment to provide high-quality mental health care, VA has nationally disseminated and implemented specific evidence-based psychotherapy for PTSD and other mental health conditions. Because PTSD, depression, and anxiety are commonly associated with MST, these initiatives are very important means of expanding MST survivors’ access to evidence-based treatments.

Recognizing the strong link between sexual trauma and risk for suicide, VA’s national MST support team has an ongoing collaboration with the VA’s veterans crisis line. Current efforts include the development of specialized materials to further enhance all veterans crisis lines staff’s of MST-specific issues and facilitate sensitive and effective handling of calls from veterans who’ve experienced MST.

Complimenting these efforts at the local level, MST coordinators have been encouraged to develop working relationships with the facilities’ suicide prevention coordinators. These relationships will allow MST coordinators to ensure local suicide prevention initiatives incorporate information about MST and target the unique needs of these survivors. This close collaboration will also facilitate addressing the treatment needs of specific veterans at their facilities who’ve experienced MST.

Madam Chairman, the Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to providing the highest quality care that our veterans have earned and deserve. Our work to effectively treat veterans who’ve experienced MST and ensure eligible veterans have access to the counseling and care they need to recover from MST continues to be a top priority. I appreciate your support and am prepared to respond to any questions you may have. Thank you.

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