The Department of Veterans Affairs “has not made a dent in stemming the approximately 20 suicide deaths every day among veterans, about one and a half times more often than those who have not served in the military,” The New York Times’ Jennifer Steinhauer reported in an April 14 article that also appeared in LNP the following day. The Times’ article came after three veterans killed themselves in early April on VA health care properties. Responding to this crisis earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order for the “President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide” — the PREVENTS Initiative.
We can have a healthy debate over whether some issues are national emergencies. But there is zero debate on this one. The rate of our military veterans committing suicide represents a national emergency.
We must stem this tide. There is no “enough” to what we can and must do for those who put their lives on the line for our nation.
But the figures are grim. According to the White House, “despite significant efforts and billions of dollars invested, suicide rates among veterans rose 26 percent from 2005 to 2016.” Of the approximately 20 veterans who take their own life each day in America, more then two-thirds were not connected or engaged with the VA for their health care.
But even working directly with the VA hasn’t been enough. The New York Times notes that “veterans often receive good mental health care at many Department of Veterans Affairs centers — but that has not decreased suicide rates.”
So the VA should not shoulder all of the criticism or responsibility. As the Times points out, the issues facing our veterans “are in many ways an amplification of the same factors that drive suicide in the broader American population: a fragmented health care system, a shortage of mental health resources, especially in rural areas, a lack of funding for suicide research and easy access to guns.”
The additional at-risk factors are even more daunting for veterans. Steinhauer cites “high rates of homelessness, traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress and a military culture that can be resistant to seeking help.”
“There is no single cause of suicide,” Dr. Keita Franklin, the VA’s new executive director of suicide prevention, told the Times. “When we pull a thread, we see a complex situation with 25 factors playing. We can’t prevent suicide from where we sit in the VA by ourselves.”
And so this is a challenge that we must combat on multiple fronts.
President Trump’s executive order in March was welcome and necessary. It established a task force that includes the secretaries of Veterans Affairs, Defense, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security. They will develop “a comprehensive public health roadmap for helping veterans pursue an improved quality of life.” The effort hopes to engage public and private stakeholders and state and local governments. And, crucially, it must provide those entities “with the resources and tools they need to empower veteran communities and provide needed services.”
Having sufficient resources available should never be a question when it comes to our veterans.
To be sure, the VA must play a large role in this. It must get more veterans connected with its services and then improve the follow-up outreach efforts once those vets are within the system. Efforts must be refined to reach veterans in higher-risk demographics, including those in rural communities. The VA must also expand and improve its training in suicide prevention; the Times notes that “only $68 million is expected to be spent on suicide research this year, according to the National Institutes of Health.”
Local outreach efforts — large and small — can also help with this crisis, and we should encourage them. We want to note two of those “smaller” efforts, because we don’t believe that any act to strengthen the mental health of our veterans is insignificant.
— Writeface, an organization started by Vietnam veteran Scott Hower and local writer Annie Ginder, was profiled by LNP correspondent Laura Knowles last November. The group encourages those dealing with PTSD and other disabilities to find camaraderie with other veterans facing similar issues and to express themselves through writing. Hower told LNP that Writeface has “worked with veterans who were on the brink of suicide and seen them evolve through the writing process, emerging with a newfound self-awareness and confidence.”
— Lloyd’s Rides is a registered charity, based in Manheim, that gives wounded warriors rides on motorcycles or in hot rods, limousines or classic cars. In a letter to LNP last year, Randy “Hoss” Caldwell of lloydsrides.org wrote: “We go after those who fall between the cracks, and there are many. Yes, we are a grassroots nonprofit. Someone must step forward.”
Indeed, we must all step forward. Each in our own way.
Writeface and Lloyd’s Rides are far from the largest initiatives to help our veterans, but they are indicative of the passion we need to fuel the mission to give them the care and attention they deserve. They fought for us. Now we must fight for them — in every way possible — to help turn the tide in this national emergency.
If you know a vet who’s struggling, don’t hesitate to ask if he or she is thinking about suicide. If the answer is yes, keep talking, and reach out to Lancaster County Crisis Intervention (717-394-2631) or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-TALK).
As Jayne Miller of WellSpan Philhaven wrote in a column for LNP earlier this month, “research indicates that talking openly about suicide is helpful, not harmful. So don’t wait to have the conversation. You could save someone’s life.”