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Opinion

Veteran suicide is not just military issue

A U.S. military illustration depicts estimates that 22 veterans a day take their lives. That's a suicide every 65 minutes.

CHRISTOPHER GRIFFIN/U.S. AIR FORCE

By ANDREW VERNON | | Published: June 13, 2019

Veteran health care and specifically veteran mental health is a severe problem in this nation. The Department of Veterans Affairs has over 150 hospitals nationwide and over 2,000 community-based outpatient clinics.

Still, 20 veterans each day lose their lives to suicide — a number that has not changed for almost a decade.

The same number of suicides occur each day despite billions of dollars being funded to the VA through Congress to hire mental health clinicians, develop and implement programs and services, and increase awareness and provide education to veterans.

We have veteran service organizations working on this, as well as government employees, lobbyists, consultants and members of Congress, yet we cannot find an effective platform to decrease suicides.

The fact is that the VA is the largest health care system in the United States, but it cannot go at this alone. Money cannot solve all of our problems, but people can. We need to do more.

The VA, Department of Defense and other agencies have implemented community integration resources for veterans and servicemembers to become more connected to mental health professionals and the services they offer, but there needs to be increased awareness of these services.

Veteran and military service organizations have partnered to encourage a larger membership base to create a greater understanding of veteran suicides so these ideas can be shifted to policymakers, but young veterans populations are not as widely involved, and the smaller, rural organizations are seeking to reduce their presence and at times close their doors.

Very few public service announcements have been created for our nation to recognize and understand the importance of this issue.

Employers around the nation have committed to creating offices to assist veterans in obtaining employment but oftentimes lack the knowledge and resources to assist them through employment.

More importantly, we have a shortage of mental health practitioners both at the VA and in the public sector to accommodate veterans and their families during a crisis. A veterans crisis line and a military crisis line exists for veterans, servicemembers, and their families in the event they need to discuss hardships.

Much of this population is unaware these hotlines exist, and some have preferences to see a practitioner face to face as opposed to discussing their issues on the telephone.

Now is the time to take things a step further.

Offering weekday and weekend workshops at various locations, developing and widely distributing educational materials, bringing this to the attention of the public through media outlets, and developing better training for members of law enforcement can be a great start.

Community partners need to develop and implement plans to get veterans back into the workforce but also help them through their transition while in the workforce.

Having office spaces in workplaces dedicated to veteran concerns and needs would be a significant step toward making them successful in the public and private sectors.

Active participation in community engagement platforms and social networks is another key.

Communicating and researching other veteran government programs such as Veterans Affairs Canada and those in the U.K. could also help. They may have ideas that have worked successfully for their veteran and military populations.

We should create task forces in communities and throughout local and state government to track veteran populations and help them be successful. Their families rely upon it.

We all need to do our part to understand the life of military families and military personnel.

Taking steps to educate the public about what they go through, what they have gone through and their state upon discharge is key to a successful transition from military to civilian life.

Partners in the private sector need to step up their game and offer assistance in all ways possible to provide key opportunities to those who have risked their lives to maintain our freedoms.

This is not an impossible feat.

Dropping the suicide rate one or two points can be a big game changer.

If we are serious about this issue, we will not only welcome our servicemembers and veterans home but take time out of our daily schedules to educate ourselves about them and their military experiences. They have a lot to contribute to society and we cannot neglect to remember this.

As a veteran myself, God bless all fellow veterans, servicemembers and their families. Help is available.

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Andrew Vernon worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs for seven years. This column also appeared in the Portland Press Herald of Maine.
 

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