What the White House needs to know about rising veteran suicide numbers

By | October 7, 2019

The Department of Veterans Affairs recently reported that a shocking 21 veterans died by suicide each day in 2017.

This is an increase from the previous figure: “only” 20 veterans a day took their own lives in 2016. The problem is even more acute, however, because the total population of veterans in the United States decreased by 2% over the same year. These numbers prompt reflection and, of course, sadness. But I am also angry.

Just hours before the VA released this number, I was at the White House providing advice to a new task force: the “President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End the National Tragedy of Suicide,” which goes by the acronym PREVENTS. As we gathered so that experts in veterans issues could provide important feedback to this administration’s marquee program for addressing the veteran suicide epidemic, these new numbers never came up. No mention was made of this report even as we were doing our best to inform Administration efforts.

I didn’t know about the increased rate in suicide on Friday morning, but what I told the group was relevant nonetheless: I applaud the “all hands on deck” approach to integrate public and private entities nationally to address suicide — it is the only way that we will truly make a difference in this fight — but we can’t wait until March 2020 to begin. There are legislative efforts moving through Congress right now that begin to address the risk factors that lead to military and veteran suicide.

The president set up this task force in March. Our first meeting was in September. In the intervening six months, we lost over 3,000 more veterans to suicide. That is an entire regiment wiped out by the epidemic, which will not slow down while new policies are developed. By the time the task force completes the development of its roadmap next March, we will have lost another regiment.

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We already know a lot about where the problems lie and what we need to do about them. The bipartisan Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Healthcare Improvement Act (S. 785) is a compendium bill full of provisions before the Senate right now that would fill gaps in the VA’s current ability to serve the veterans population. It is slow-moving and has not yet been introduced in the House. Vocal support from the president and the VA in passing these much-needed reforms should be step one. But there is so much more that can be done. Two-thirds of veterans who die by suicide are not currently in the VA system. Addressing mental healthcare at the VA is part of the solution, but so is bringing veterans into the fold and meeting veterans’ needs where they are.

Fundamentally, addressing suicide is about removing despair from a population who should never feel they lack the resources to pull themselves out of tough times. The whole point of having a Department of Veterans Affairs is to ensure that, because they served this country, we prevent veterans from falling into those dire straits. The increasing number of veteran suicides is not just an indication that we need to improve mental healthcare for veterans: It’s an indictment of how well we as an American society are doing at taking care of our veterans holistically.

The VA alone can’t stop this crisis, but they should be leading the fight. To do this, we need a VA that every veteran is excited to take advantage of: a benefit they earned through their service that guarantees they never need to feel this level of despair. VA healthcare should be of enviable quality, VA facilities should seem as if they belong in this century, and the VA system should signal to all veterans that they are welcome, including potentially marginalized groups like women and gay veterans.

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When a veteran begins to feel despair, perhaps because of financial trouble, job loss, or physical health problems, the government should be a source of hope. We need programs in place that set veterans up for success as soon as they begin the transition into civilian life and to get them back on their feet when necessary. Once you have volunteered to lay everything on the line for our freedom, the least we can do is ensure that you have resources to feel that tough times will only be temporary.

When “only” 20 veterans a day were dying by suicide, the White House and the VA determined they needed a year to develop a plan of action. Now that we are losing 21 veterans a day, I’m renewing my call to not wait, but to take immediate action. I am devastated that this number is going in the wrong direction, but I hope it will shock Americans enough to spur the progress we need.

Jeremy Butler is the CEO of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

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