Veterans Affairs officials are launching a new effort to reach out to recently separated troops to inform them about benefits and support services in an effort to ease transition issues and hopefully prevent more veteran suicides.
The Solid Start program, which began earlier this month, includes three calls from VA officials to new veterans in their first year of separation to “help you better understand the benefits available to you and help you get a solid start on your civilian life.”
The new program is expected to contact about 200,000 individuals each year. Department officials said the first call, expected within 90 days of separation from the military, will include an in-depth conversation with veterans about their goals and challenges, to better target what VA services may be of use to them.
“During subsequent calls, representatives will follow up with veterans to check on their transition,” officials said about the new effort in a formal statement. “In those calls, the representatives will answer any questions the veterans may have about VA benefits and services, and connect them with valuable resources.”
Among the programs the callers will discuss are the free mental health resources available through VA for all separating service members for their first year of post-military life, regardless of discharge status or service history.
The move follows other initiatives by the White House in recent years to improve outreach to veterans in the months following their departure from the military, which researchers have said are among the most dangerous for individuals battling mental health issues and suicidal thoughts.
About 20 veterans and active-duty service members die by suicide each day, according to the latest figures from the VA.
Dr. Heather O’Beirne Kelly, director of military and veterans health policy at the American Psychological Association, called the new program an important step in helping veterans because it takes a proactive approach in looking for individuals who may be in distress.
“The suicide rate among veterans the first year after transition to civilian status is particularly high and cuts across all demographic groups and service cohorts,” she said. “Risk is often elevated during times of intense change, and it’s important for VA to reach out instead of waiting for a veteran to make the first contact.”
The program is not mandatory, and calls from VA are dependent on veterans providing the department or military officials with their current contact information.
Kelly said APA would like to see mandatory mental health screening for all departing service members to help better identify individuals who would benefit from other outreach programs in the future.
But she said the calls from the Solid Start program “will be crucial, since those check-ins will come when adjustment to civilian life is far more salient and perhaps challenging.”
More information on the program is available at the VA web site.
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.