Veterans Affairs officials want to give you up to $3 million if you can help solve the problem of veteran suicides.

On Wednesday, department leaders announced the launch of Mission Daybreak, a $20 million “challenge” designed to help VA develop new suicide prevention strategies. The goal is to get thousands of new ideas on how to better help and support veterans over the next six weeks, and award cash prizes for the best 40 ideas in coming months.

“To end veteran suicide, we need to use every tool available,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “Mission Daybreak is fostering solutions across a broad spectrum of focus areas to combat this preventable problem.”

The unconventional approach is intended to build upon the existing array of VA suicide prevention initiatives and solve the largely static problem of how to keep veterans from self harm.

Veteran suicides fell to their lowest level in 12 years in 2019, down more than one death per day from the previous year’s levels, according to VA data.

That was the most significant improvement in suicide metrics in five years, but it still leaves the number of veterans lost to suicide each day at about 17, despite years of legislative focus and funding to combat the issue.

Last month, VA officials announced plans to award nearly $52 million in grants for suicide prevention programs in coming months to community groups in an effort to provide more targeted help for individuals in distress.

The new Mission Daybreak initiative has similar parameters but a different approach, according to Dr. Matt Miller, national director of VA suicide prevention.

“A key to innovation is rapid implementation and development,” he said. “So what we’re really trying to foster and harness is those ideas that can be rapidly developed, be scalable across our system, and make a big difference quickly.”

The first phase of the challenge — which is modeled after similar efforts in the Defense Department for a host of procurement and technology development issues — will require teams or individuals to submit a 10-page concept paper that describes “a proposed solution, its impact on specific veteran communities, an evidence framework, [and] an implementation plan.”

The proposals can focus on any facet of suicide prevention, but officials said they will be specifically considering several key areas:

  • Utilizing digital data from active and passive sources;
  • Improved access to and efficiency to the Veterans Crisis Line;
  • Preventing firearm suicides;
  • Improving community resilience and connection;
  • Incorporating family and community into veteran’s well-being;
  • And reducing barriers to veterans asking for help.

The top 30 ideas will each be awarded $250,000, and 10 others $100,000 each. The top 30 will also be invited to join an eight-week virtual accelerator program to help individuals refine the ideas, with additional cash prizes (including two first-place awards of $3 million) to be given out in the fall.

Entrants will not be required to implement the ideas, but instead will help VA officials put the changes in place and monitor their impact on veterans’ mental health and quality of life.

Miller said initial data compiled by the department shows that the rate of veteran suicides may have declined even further in 2021. But even so, he is hopeful the new challenge can inspire new ideas to push those numbers down even further.

When factoring in active-duty military, reservists and other associated groups, the total of military and veteran suicide is roughly 20 per day. Many outside groups still quote the “22-a-day” statistic regarding veteran suicide, even thought that is based on an outdated estimate from VA officials more than a decade ago.

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.

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