No time for buck-passing as we address vet suicide
By JEREMY BUTLER | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: May 10, 2019
Early on the morning of April 29, another veteran died by suicide outside of a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital — the fourth such death in April. This alarming new trend highlights the despair and the frustration experienced by American veterans. Veteran suicide requires immediate attention from the government and the American public. If we want to save the lives of these men and women, we need to act with a sense of urgency.
As CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, I hear from veterans who reach out to our case managers in desperate need of help every day. In the past year, IAVA has seen over a 50% increase in veterans at risk of suicide reaching out for support, as compared with last year-to-date. This crisis is not getting better.
In March, President Donald Trump signed an executive order giving the government a full year to come up with recommendations on how to solve the veteran suicide crisis. Members of Congress held hearings this month to discuss veteran suicide and come up with their own plan. Yet IAVA has advocated around the importance of addressing veteran suicide for over a decade, as rates rose over the course of major surges in Iraq and Afghanistan. The causes of this epidemic are not mysterious, though they are varied, and the time for admiring the problem has ended: We should be urgently implementing solutions.
We need to ensure that quality mental health care is available to all veterans. That means fully implementing authorized programs to improve the quality of mental health care at the VA. It also means federal funds for promising programs at the state and local level, such as peer-to-peer counseling and so-called “complementary care” (nontraditional therapies such as yoga, meditation and animal therapy), which have been shown to make a difference. When we know programs work, there should be no impediment to funding and supporting them.
There are other obvious evidence-based practices that we must pursue immediately. We need to take appropriate measures to limit access to lethal means for those who are at risk of suicide, including guns and medication. Medical staff of all kinds, not just mental health providers, need to be asking veterans about suicide and mental health. And all veterans support providers need to be trained with a full understanding of the connection between suicide and other social issues such as homelessness, unemployment and underemployment, and incarceration.
Overall, we need to eliminate sources of despair for veterans. The VA cannot fail, and cannot be allowed to fail. When veterans turn to the VA for services, whether it is for mental or physical health care, to take advantage of a financial program, or with a claim, there is no backstop. When the VA fails our veterans, they do not have anywhere to turn. Organizations like IAVA do our best to plug those gaps, but we wish we did not have to do so.
All of us who served in the military understand what it means to operate in an environment where failure means loss of life. That urgency needs to apply to the VA as well. On April 29, we heard the executive director of the Veterans Health Agency, Dr. Richard Stone, himself an Army veteran, testify in front of Congress. He highlighted everything the VA is doing, but repeated many times that this is a problem only the American public can solve.
We do need the American public to care about this issue, but when the government points to everyone, they point to no one. Rather than trying to absolve themselves of responsibility, the VA should be focusing on using its healthy media budget to galvanize the American public specifically and proactively. Localized support to help reach veterans who are currently not being engaged by the VA will be essential to solving this crisis, so we need to invest in reaching people at the local level.
When a veteran who has earned military honors dies, we provide the family a flag “on behalf of a grateful nation” for their service. This notion should not be purely symbolic. On behalf of a grateful nation, let’s take care of our veterans and extend their lives. No veteran should have to live in despair. The government and the American public can do better by them, and need to do so immediately; the time for studying this problem has passed.
If you are having thoughts about killing yourself, please contact the Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) immediately. VCL can assist in the moment and can be reached by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1, or sending a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Alternatively, for immediate support outside the VA system, use the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741741.