2 Western Pennsylvania veterans' suicides raise questions
Marine Corps veteran David J. Cranmer, 28, had plenty going for him: a young daughter, a marriage, a good job.
The Iraq war veteran from Brentwood certainly had no history of suicidal tendencies when he took his life March 10, about a month after he started taking a powerful antidepressant, said his father, Bob Cranmer, 58.
Now the former Allegheny County commissioner is urging a close look at whether mental health drugs prescribed through the Department of Veterans Affairs contribute to high suicide rates among veterans. Federal estimates suggest the total among veterans might reach 22 a day, which would account for around 20 percent of suicides nationwide. Veterans make up about 7 percent of the population.
Cranmer called the suicide figures “outrageous.”
“I think it warrants looking into,” he said Wednesday, two days after another veteran, Michelle Langhorst, 31, of Plum shot herself in a parking lot at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System campus in O'Hara.
Her suicide remained under investigation by Allegheny County police and the VA. The county Medical Examiner's Office said she died at 1:37 p.m. Monday.
In a written statement, the VA Pittsburgh system offered “thoughts and condolences” for Langhorst's family and friends. It said a VA investigation will examine, in part, whether “we could have done (anything) better for this veteran and others who receive care” from the regional health care system.
“Due to privacy concerns, we can't provide many details. We can share that we are reviewing the many aspects of this tragic event and are fully committed to providing our nation's veterans with the absolute best care and services possible,” the VA said.
County police found no crime involved in Langhorst's death, Lt. Andrew Schurman said.
VA and military officials did not release details of her service or treatment, and friends and relatives could not be reached.
Hundreds more service members on active duty kill themselves each year, according to the Department of Defense. It recorded 268 confirmed suicides among active enlistees in 2014, up from 254 in 2013, the department reported this week. That doesn't include suicides among men and women in the Reserve units and National Guard.
VA headquarters in Washington described its approach to mental health as holistic, not rooted only in prescription drugs. Officials there did not say whether the department might re-evaluate methods for patients such as David Cranmer, who had post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We have made strong progress, but we must do more. Every veteran suicide is a tragic outcome, and regardless of the numbers or rates, one veteran suicide is one too many,” the department said in a statement.
VA officials have made suicide prevention a priority for about a decade, relying on several means that include routine screenings and a national help line at 800-273-8255, said Dr. Jeffrey Peters, the behavioral health chief for the VA Pittsburgh system. He said it has two social workers assigned full-time to suicide prevention.
“As a psychiatrist, I must tell you: I consider everyone I treat to be a suicide risk,” Peters said. He said prevention efforts have become more systematic.
The VA will explore new prevention strategies under the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, signed in February by President Obama. The law provides incentives to recruit psychiatrists and requires regular assessments of VA programs.
Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, is planning separate action to strengthen the system, including a bill to ease the continuity of medications and providers, he said.
“Psychotropic medications are powerful things. They need to be carefully followed up,” said Murphy, a clinical psychologist.
At the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in New York, Jill Harkavy-Friedman said no blanket reason explains the elevated suicide numbers among veterans. She said mental health problems appear to materialize at similar rates in veteran and non-veteran populations.
But many veterans have firearms, said Harkavy-Friedman, the foundation vice president for research.
“When you have access to lethal means, then you have a greater likelihood of using them and dying,” she said.
Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.