The VA strategy says, “Suicide prevention is VA’s highest priority.” If that were true, the VA would not outsource the solution to local, community-based organizations. In the VA’s National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide, there are four critical protective factors that help offset risk factors.
Two clinical solutions: 1) Positive coping skills, and 2) Access to mental health care; and two non-clinical solutions: 3) Feeling connected to other people, and 4) Having reasons for living or a sense of purpose in life. The VA’s strategy has a “lead from behind” approach for the latter two. We give the VA $220.2 billion per year to take care of our 20 million veterans. Yet, the VA wants to outsource outreach to veteran service organizations (VSOs), nonprofits, local businesses and governments to address the two non-clinical factors. While VSOs advocate on behalf of all veterans, they are not in touch with all veterans.
Given member overlap and passive membership, basic math dictates that the combined marketing reach of the entire VSO community is estimated to be 5-10 percent of the total.
Even so, this business-to-business (B2B) (organization to organization) approach is not the right strategy for an organization with individual customers.
The VA’s customers/end users are the veterans themselves. Therefore, a business-to-consumer (B2C) (organization to end user) approach is the correct one.
That’s why the VA’s current outreach strategy will fail to lower the suicide rate, especially among young veterans.
Instead of relying on others, the VA’s strategy should be to replicate the peer, community and institutional support veterans had while they were in the military.
Protective factor No. 1: Feeling connected to other people
Focus on building three (3) circles of connection around each veteran:
1. Connection to veteran peers. When veterans leave the military, they leave their peers and friends forever. We need to build local, physical peer groups around common interests like sports, music, and gaming. Just being a veteran is not enough of a similarity. Peer groups are built around similar interests. The VA needs to facilitate those connections.
2. Connection to a veteran community. When veterans leave the military, they leave their entire support community. They do not have mentors, advocates or a network to belong to. Community can be rebuilt via events with mass appeal across interest groups. The VA needs to rebuild those communities.
3. Connection to the VA institution. The only time a veteran interacts with the VA is when they need something. That is not a healthy B2C relationship. B2C relationships are built over time and the VA needs to focus on providing value to the veteran in ways that are not transactional but are meaningful and memorable. Veterans need to have a relationship with the VA far in advance of any clinical issues like depression, addiction, financial hardship, mental health or health problems. The VA needs to build relationships.
4. How to build connection: Flip the outreach strategy. In FY20 the VA will spend $222 million on suicide prevention outreach.
- $100.2 million will go towards B2B outreach efforts like hiring suicide prevention coordinators and teams, strategy implementation, etc.
- Flip the outreach strategy from B2B to B2C. Bring them to the VA!
- Spend 100 percent of those funds booking monthly activities around interests and quarterly events with mass appeal that draw Veterans to the 170 VA medical centers.
- Using event technology, capture attendee data in order to remarket VA’s services and stay connected.
- Build a marketing apparatus that will help you connect with the 70 percent of veterans (14 million) who do not get healthcare from the VA and ensure you outsource the solution to industry experts.
Protective factor No. 2: Reasons for living or a sense of purpose
Many of us found purpose and reasons for living via our military connections. We also found purpose via our job: defending the country and protecting those we love.
The VA and DoD need to emulate that sense of purpose and set the example for the nation. Together, they employ over 1.2 million civilians worldwide. But in 2016, only 32.8 percent of VA employees were veterans. In 2016, only 47.5 percent of DoD employees were veterans. We need a “100 percent veteran” hiring policy at both departments.
Educate and train veterans, if needed. The VA and DoD already do so via the GI Bill, transition programs, vocational rehab, Tuition Assistance and reimbursement, etc. That would give hundreds of thousands of veterans financial stability and a purpose — serving their fellow troops/families and veterans. Who better to understand service and recovery?
Make those changes today and the VA will finally have a comprehensive and effective suicide prevention strategy.
Sean Gilfillan is CEO and founder of BaseFEST.
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, email@example.com.