Schumer: Better mental health programs could prevent future tragedies

Booking photo of Aaron Alexis, arrested in September Booking photo of Aaron Alexis, arrested in September 2010, on suspicion of discharging a firearm in the city limits. Alexis is suspected to be the shooter at the Washington DC Navy Yard on Sept. 16, 2013. Photo Credit: Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs should improve its mental health treatment programs and help create a psychiatric response center to share information and prevent tragedies like the Sept. 16 Washington Navy Yard shooting, Sen. Charles Schumer said Sunday.

"Because if someone had reached out -- a mental health expert had reached out -- there might be 13 people alive today," Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. "But the system clearly broke down. One hand didn't know what the other was doing."

Schumer suggested the VA work with the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury to review how mental health treatments can be improved, how to help remove the stigma associated with mental illness and how to incorporate more mental health counselors into the Veterans Affairs workforce.

Speaking at a news conference Sunday outside Metropolitan Hospital Center on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Schumer also called on the U.S. Defense Department to help the VA create a central clearinghouse where mental health warning signs, such as those shooter Aaron Alexis exhibited, can be identified. The center should have a 24-hour hotline for local law enforcement officials, he said.

Schumer also made the suggestions in a letter being sent Monday to VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.

Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Defense, said in a statement, "We are aware of Sen. Schumer's suggestions. We are committed to working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure service members have a smooth transition to the VA after their military service."

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Wilkinson also pointed to ways that the Department of Defense works with the VA on mental health issues through the Centers of Excellence, such as an around-the-clock outreach center that provides psychological health information, resources and referrals to military members, veterans and their families.

The Centers of Excellence also manage a program to ensure that military members who receive psychological health care do not "fall through the cracks" when moving from one duty station to another, deploying or transitioning from the military to the VA's care. Coaches enhance the continuity of care and help service members maintain their treatment gains while they transition, the document said.

Alexis, 34, a Navy veteran, on Sept. 16 shot and killed 12 people at the Navy Yard in Washington. He was killed by police.

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Weeks before the massacre, Newport, R.I., police had reported to the Navy that Alexis complained of having hallucinations. Alexis, before the shooting, also was treated at two VA hospitals.

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