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OPINION

Check vets’ mental wellness at vaccination visit

By MICHAEL HUDSON | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: April 6, 2021

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In America today, veterans are signing up to receive a COVID-19 vaccine from a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic. And for some of them, that’s their very first interaction with the VA. We need to leverage this step focused on the medical pandemic to help with the quiet pandemic of veteran suicide. 
 
We have all seen for too long the ever-increasing suicide rate of veterans, and right now, we have a unique opportunity to reach and support more veterans than perhaps ever before. By screening the veterans waiting to be inoculated with a COVID-19 vaccine, we can begin to collectively end this quiet pandemic, which has raged unabated for years longer than the current medical one. 
 
Reducing veteran suicide has been a top priority of VA officials, and a focus of executive branch and congressional leaders, for some time. These entities are moving about, spending billions, but can be challenged by old processes and thinking. They tend to make small, safe bets within rigid processes, when they need to make informed, big bets in innovative solutions and new technologies. Even with their dedicated efforts, the challenge of veteran suicide remains a critical issue. 
 
You do not need to look further than the past decade to see the impacts, despite Congress deploying more resources and the VA’s focused efforts. Between 2008 and 2017, according to the latest data available, 60,000 veterans died by suicide. In 2005, an average of 15.9 veterans died by suicide each day; today, that number is even closer to 20, with veterans being 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than civilians — and female veterans even more so. 
 
Part of the problem is access. Seventy percent of the veterans who will die by suicide today are not in contact with the VA for many reasons. But with Americans everywhere eager to get their vaccine and return to some sense of normalcy, veterans eligible to receive their vaccine by visiting a VA clinic could be motivated to stay in touch or reconnect with the VA even after this visit. 
 
Especially after the veteran takes that first step, we need to make sure that we rid ourselves of our ingrained expectation that all individuals in crisis will speak up and ask for help. Decades of stigmas and stereotypes have fostered a culture of silence and reluctance to admit weakness, particularly when that weakness is tied to mental health concerns and compounded by the fact that most veterans’ desire to fix the problem themselves. 
 
If we hope to effectively decrease the veteran suicide rate, we need to evolve our approach. We need to take advantage of this opportunity to connect with our veterans, and when we do, take a proactive approach to introduce secure, private and trusted monitoring for our friends and loved ones for signs of distress. All veterans understand the concept of a wingman, combat buddy, or the mantra, “one team, one fight,” so let’s be that for them. 
 
The best kind of wingman or combat buddy will educate themselves on the signs of mental illness or overwhelming stress to look out for. Resources such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness are invaluable in this endeavor, and a breakdown of suicide-specific warning signs can be found on the National Institute of Mental Health website.
 
They will also make sure that they ask the right questions when they notice any warning signs, and that is where resources like The Columbia Protocol come into play. The questions outlined in The Columbia Protocol are difficult to ask, and the answers may be even harder to hear, but experts at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration are available 24/7 to help guide individuals or their family members through the next steps toward seeking help.
 
It’s not often that we have the means to reach hundreds, if not thousands of veterans at once and in-person. We need to seize this opportunity, because if we do it right — by being proactive and prepared with the knowledge needed to identify and support those who are struggling — we have the potential to help, and maybe save, more lives in a single moment than any other time in our nation’s history.
 
Col. Michael Hudson, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, is the vice president of government solutions at ClearForce, a risk management organization.