Published reports note that the frequency of veteran suicide has increased between the years 2008 and 2015; veterans aren’t the only members of the population to see an increase in suicide rates, but vets are one-and-a-half times more likely to die by suicide than those in the general population.
On March 5, 2019, the President signed an executive order directing the Department of Veterans Affairs to co-chair a suicide task force. The order, known as the National Initiative to Empower Veterans and End Veterans Suicide is intended to approach the issue from a public health standpoint, and is designed for the purpose of “…improving the quality of life for America’s Veterans and ending the tragedy of Veteran suicide” according to the VA official site.
Creating A Veteran Suicide Task Force
The executive order creates the Veteran Wellness, Empowerment and Suicide Prevention Task Force, which will be required to take the following steps:
- Develop a comprehensive national public health roadmap designed to offer “the specific strategies needed to lower effectively the rate of Veteran suicide.” This effort will include an emphasis on community engagement.
- Create grants to local communities intended to help “integrate service delivery and coordinate resources to Veterans.”
- Establish a plan to perform research in the field of Veteran suicide prevention and improve associated processes, set benchmarks, etc.
Who Will Work In The Veteran Suicide Task Force
The VA healthcare system is one of the largest integrated health care providers in the United States; the VA’s efforts in this area will include the efforts of the task force mentioned above, which will be populated from the following:
- Secretary of Defense
- Secretary of Health and Human Services
- Secretary of Energy
- Department of Homeland Security
- Secretary of Labor
- Secretary of Education
- Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
- Director of the Office of Management and Budget
- Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
- Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy
The VA official site quotes VA Secretary Robert Wilkie on the task force, saying, “Veterans (sic) suicide is a national public health issue that affects communities everywhere, and this executive order is a national call to action.”
Wilkie adds that since there is no single cause of suicide, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem. It requires a multi-faceted approach tailored to the individual. “We must work side by side with our partners at all levels of government — and in the private sector — to provide our Veterans with the mental health and suicide prevention services they need.”
What Motivated The Executive Order To Create A Veteran Suicide Task Force
A report by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) issued in November 2018 notes that VA suicide prevention outreach efforts have declined since the start of the Trump Administration.
According to the GAO official site, “…Since 2010, VA has conducted national outreach to raise awareness about suicide prevention resources for veterans. However, we found that VA’s outreach activities dropped off in 2017 and 2018, and the office responsible for these activities lacked consistent leadership. We also found that VA did not have clear goals for evaluating the effectiveness of its outreach activities.”
Furthermore, the GAO recommendation to change these shortcomings includes a suggestion that the Undersecretary for Health should “establish an approach for overseeing its suicide prevention media outreach efforts that includes clear delineation of roles and responsibilities for those in leadership and contract oversight roles.”
What To Do If A Loved One Is Suicidal
A government task force addressing veteran suicide is an encouraging development, but those who experience suicidal thoughts and feelings need immediate help and not just the promise of a government body trying to help.
Fellow veterans, family, and friends who witness suicidal symptoms or related behaviors are urged to intervene, to let the sufferer know they are not alone, and to offer help when needed. Those symptoms and behaviors can include, but are not limited to:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way or making a plan to die
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness
- Feeling trapped
- Talking about unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Escalating substance abuse issues
- Acting anxious, agitated
- Reckless behavior
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Feelings of isolation and withdrawal
- Extreme mood swings
How To Help
- Do not leave a suicidal person alone
- Remove drugs, weapons, and other items that could be used for self-harm
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Take the suicidal person to an emergency room OR
- Take the sufferer to a mental health professional
Any veteran who has thoughts or feelings of self-harm, feels in a crisis, or knows someone who is experiencing these issues should contact the VA Veteran Crisis Line any time, day or night, by calling 800-273-8255. Press the number 1. You can send a text message to 838255, or utilize the online chat.
For more information visit the PREVENTS page on VA.gov
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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