Salute to Veterans

Mental health and suicide crisis among US veterans getting new approach

About 20 veterans take their own lives each day. If that devastating statistic sounds familiar, it might be because you’ve seen viral social media challenges or moving public service campaigns seeking to bring awareness to this tragedy. Sadly, that figure has remained roughly unchanged for around a decade.

Clearly our national approach to suicide prevention and mental health care has not worked to the degree we would like. Isn’t it time to try something different?

The good news is that a national strategy to better reach and provide mental health care and resources to former service members is on the cusp of being deployed. With the passage of the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, landmark legislation to address this heartbreaking situation, we can empower groups and organizations with proven records of success to expand their ability and available resources to foster healing and provide vital support. This will save lives and help veterans process trauma in a safe and caring environment.

What gives us such a high level of optimism for a significant reduction in the rate of suicide among veterans is the fact that an initiative we authored was included in the broader measure that President Donald Trump signed into law last month. The IMPROVE Well-Being for Veterans Act, which we originally introduced in June 2019, has been described by Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilkie as the “key” to unlocking the problem of veteran suicide.

With this law, we are poised to create a new grant structure and program enabling the VA to conduct additional outreach by partnering with veteran-serving nonprofits.

Sheepdog Impact Assistance, based in Rogers, Arkansas, and Boulder Crest Foundation based in Bluemont, Virginia, are two of thousands of nonprofit organizations, committed to reaching veterans — an important mission given that roughly 14 of the veterans who take their own lives daily do not receive treatment from the VA in over 12 months — by building camaraderie and trust that ultimately leads to better mental health outcomes.

Reaching veterans, especially those who are under-served or hesitant of utilizing the VA’s services, through groups that their fellow former service members are part of and enjoy a high degree of trust and visibility clearly builds on a winning formula.

And while we’re confident that this approach will only bolster veteran suicide prevention efforts and lead to a reduction in veteran suicide, the days of trusting mere funding increases to result in fewer suicides and better mental health care success will also be a thing of the past. The IMPROVE provision also ensures that suicide prevention programs will be subject to a measurement tool that will indicate the effectiveness of these efforts.

Over the last decade, VA suicide prevention and mental health care funding has increased $6 billion. During this same time, the VA has implemented several hiring initiatives to increase its mental health staff, all aimed at providing greater access to care. Yet, the number of veterans taking their life each day has relatively remained unchanged. It’s clear we must gather data and metrics to understand what works and what doesn’t in order to make targeted investments to accomplish our goal.

Increasing coordination between the VA and community organizations that serve a wide variety of veteran needs plays a part in reducing the loss of purpose that ends in suicide. Improving these partnerships is a worthy goal, and one we believe will enable more interventions that offer hope and help these American heroes realize their best days are in front of them.

We are proud to have built consensus around this strategy. The real measures of success will be if more veterans are identified living in communities, accessing VA mental health care and fewer veterans resort to taking their own lives.

America’s former service members deserve that hope. We must step up and provide it. Recent developments on this front mean we’re getting to the root of this crisis and crafting solutions that are poised to make an impact.

John Boozman is a Republican senator for Arkansas. Mark Warner is a Democratic senator from Virginia.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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