WASHINGTON — AMVETS officials on Tuesday announced a new mental health care partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs that’s part of a broader effort by both organizations to better combat suicide among vulnerable veterans.
“We have to start saving lives, not just talking about it,” said Sherman Gillums Jr., chief strategy officer for AMVETS.
The new initiative — nicknamed the HEAL program — comes the same week that VA officials are set to deliver plans to the White House to provide mental health services to every service member leaving the ranks, in an effort to better identify troubled veterans and intervene before they harm themselves.
Those plans are the culmination of a 60-day interagency review of mental health services and policies mandated by an executive order in January. At the time, President Donald Trump said the move meant that federal departments would take a closer look at “supporting our veterans during their transition from uniformed service to civilian life, taking some of their difficulty away.”
On Tuesday, VA Secretary David Shulkin called the moves an extension of his department’s clinical work on suicide prevention. He acknowledged that many service members and veterans do not know enough about the services available to them, and called the coordination with AMVETS an important step forward.
“We know that mental health care saves lives, and we can do more,” he said. “So this is really important.”
Research by the Naval Postgraduate School has found that veterans in their first year out of the military are almost three times more likely to take their own lives than individuals still serving. That has lead to a new focus on that first year of military transition, and outreach to those new veterans.
The HEAL program (which stands for healthcare, evaluation, advocacy and legislation) includes a new AMVETS-run hotline for veterans to call for guidance on available resources, to be launched March 19. Email and online chat components are also being created.
The veterans group is spending about $700,000 to pay for a team of clinicians to work with veterans, VA officials and other community advocates to better coordinate care options and measure the effectiveness of existing programs.
Additional information on the services will be available in coming weeks on the group’s web site.
An estimated 20 veterans a day nationwide commit suicide. VA research has found more than half of those are veterans who do not have regular contact with department health care or support programs.
To contact the Veteran Crisis Line, callers can dial 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families 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.