“With veterans, we want them to be able to talk about their struggles and sometimes they can’t,” said Pence, whose son is a pilot in the Marine Corps. “Sometimes they’re dealing with trauma that damages the brain. Sometimes they just don’t know how to tell people they’re struggling.
“But help is out there.”
For the last few months, Pence has served as the lead ambassador to the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) task force, a 15-month project to find new solutions for veterans’ mental health and suicide challenges.
That effort took a new public step Wednesday with the release of a broad task force report recommending new research, community partnerships and public awareness campaigns. Pence will serve as a key figure in that work, extending her efforts with military spouses and family advocacy to the public health issue of veterans suicide.
Pence spoke with Military Times following the White House PREVENTS unveiling event to discuss her role with the task force and her goal of bringing awareness to the issue of veterans mental health.
Portions of this transcript have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Talk about your role as the lead ambassador for the veterans suicide prevention task force.
Karen Pence: I am not an expert on mental health or suicide, but I am someone who can elevate the discussion. And when they asked me to be lead ambassador, I said “absolutely,” I didn’t hesitate at all. Because what we want to do is (elevate) thought leaders who are passionate about preventing suicide, and we want to leverage their own personal networks.
So we want to spread the word about the help that is out there, through media, academia, employers, members of faith-based communities, non-governmental, non-profits and also our military and veteran community. I see my role as elevating the messages that PREVENTS wants to get out there. We want people to know, especially our veterans, that there is help.
In this challenging time that we’re in right now, everybody’s feeling some type of anxiety and stress. If we can help to kind of take away the stigma of the mental health issue and change the culture of talking about suicide, that’s what we want to do.
Q: As someone from a military family, how much do you think people outside the community know about military mental health issues and veteran suicide?
Karen Pence: I think a lot of people are not aware that we have, on average, 20 veterans who commit suicide a day. That’s an outrageous number. That number is just way way too high.
I had someone just today say “wait a minute, I don’t think that numbers right.” And I said yes, it is. So it’s important to get that message out. I think that will make people maybe a little more sensitive to what our veterans and our veterans’ families deal with.
They’re not the only people in the country who have challenges, I’m not saying that. But they have some unique challenges, especially if they’ve gone through some kind of trauma or combat stress. And we want people to be aware of that.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added some unusual stresses for our military families, such as all of their PCS moves being put on hold. And what that does to a military family is, OK, my lease is up next week, now you’re telling me I can’t move and I’m supposed to get my kids enrolled in a new school, and I have a job that’s going to start in a new location.
A big part of this is being on the front end and reaching out to people, making them know you’re there for them, and that there’s help available for them before they get to the point where they’re wanting to actually do harm to themselves.
Q: What will the new public awareness campaign for the suicide prevention campaign entail? Commercials, Sesame Street appearances?
Karen Pence: There are a couple different things that we’re doing. We want states to play a major role, so in September we’re going to host a national signing of a state PREVENTS proclamations. The governors will declare their state’s full support (for the campaign). And I think when we start doing that, we start to have a ripple effect.
We also want to look to our corporate partners. They hire a lot of vets, and so we want their support so … we want them to be aware that veterans may need opportunities to avail themselves of mental health services.
Another big part of it is more of an ad or media campaign, and being able to be out there and talk about it. A big part of this is just getting people to start to talk about the problem. I think right now, it’s important for us to be on the front edge and start telling people that when you start to feel like the stress is getting too much for you, reach out for help.
Q: We’ve talked about the problem of mental health stigma for years. What else needs to be done to drive home the idea that asking for help isn’t a weakness?
Karen Pence: I think the first thing we need to do is talk about it, but also to be willing to be vulnerable. I’ve been saying during the whole pandemic that it’s okay to say you’re not okay. Right now is a great opportunity for us to say, “I get it. I know what you’re feeling. Let’s get some help.”
Everybody is going through something we’ve never gone through before, so I think right now the fact that we’re launching the PREVENTS roadmap is a chance to say that to our vets especially. This is a time where you aren’t going to carry the stigma that maybe you would have carried before (the pandemic) …
I had many members of the task force to the Vice President’s residence about four months ago. And I said “I want to know what are we thinking is going to be different this time.” One of the things that impressed me is that some of these people have been working in the area of suicide prevention for decades. Now they’re all together. They’re all saying “this is something that works, this is something that works ...”
It’s just an honor for me to be able to be one of the people who’s trying to tell the story and let our vets know we appreciate their service. We want to help you. It’s our duty to come alongside and get you the help that you need.
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.