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What is VA Doing to Help the Veterans Suicide Epidemic?

January 9, 2020
man sitting with hand over face

Warning: This blog contains content about suicide that some may find distressing.

 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report

In September 2019, the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention released its annual report regarding veteran suicide prevention. Approximately 45,390 American adults died from suicide in 2017, including 6,139 United States veterans. The number of veteran suicides has been increasing at an alarming rate over the past decade, with more than 6,000 each year from 2008 to 2017.  The average number of suicides per day amongst veterans rose from 15.9 in 2005 to 16.8 in 2017.  In 2017, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times the rate for non-veteran adults.  In addition to the aforementioned veteran suicides, there were 919 suicides among never federally active National Guard and Reserve members in 2017, an average 2.5 suicide deaths per day.  Importantly, the data in the annual report extends only through 2017; however, VA now estimates that 20 veterans commit suicide every day.

VA has continued to work actively in partnership with the White House, Congress, Veterans Health Administration networks, and federal and community partners to address the veteran suicide epidemic.  Through this ongoing collaboration, VA has come up with several initiatives, including the PREVENTS task force, #BeThere campaign, the Mayor’s Challenge, and greater access to mental health care for Reservists and those with Other Than Honorable discharges.

PREVENTS Task Force Against Suicide

In March 2019, President Trump signed an executive order creating a public health strategy to address the rising rates of suicide among veterans.  The President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) serves as a national call to action aimed at improving veterans’ quality of life and lowering the current veteran suicide rate.  In September 2019, the PREVENTS task force held a meeting to gather insight and feedback from Veterans Service Organizations and other relevant groups.  About 50 organizations, including the American Psychological Association (APA), met with White House officials to learn more about PREVENTS.  This initiative reflects a universal strategy aimed towards reaching the entire population, to include family, community, workplace, health care, faith, and recreation elements.

VA has made suicide prevention a clinical priority and has invested considerable resources toward hiring more mental health providers, implementing same-day mental health care, using peer support personnel, ramping up crisis line capabilities, increasing access to other medical services, and expanding outreach and awareness.  However, PREVENTS extends beyond these clinical interventions and focuses on prevention efforts that build protective social factors for veterans screened and identified as high risk.  The PREVENTS task force operates on the belief that building community partnerships to fight the isolation that some veterans encounter is critical to suicide prevention.  Overall, the PREVENTS task force works with VA to address veteran suicide prevention and provides a template for the rest of the nation to do the same.

#BeThere Campaign

 The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (Action Alliance) is working with more than 250 national partners from the public and private sectors, including VA, to advance the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.  The Action Alliance is currently focusing on three priority areas: (1) transforming health systems; (2) transforming communities; and (3) changing the conversation.  The #BeThere campaign represents one of many initiatives VA is engaging in to raise awareness of veteran suicide.  Specifically, it highlights the risk factors and warning signs for suicide, provides information about VA mental health and suicide prevention resources, and helps individuals and organizations start the conversation around Veteran mental health in their communities.  While talking with a veteran about mental health or suicide risk may be challenging, VA encourages community leaders, colleagues, family, and friends to simply “Be There” by sharing messages of support that can help show a veteran you care.

Mayor’s Challenge to Prevent Veteran Suicide

In December 2017, VA and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration announced the inaugural Mayor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide among service members, veterans, and their families.  The goal of the Mayor’s Challenge is to eliminate suicide by using a comprehensive public health approach to suicide prevention.  The Mayor’s Challenge brings participating cities together to form interagency teams dedicated to increasing suicide prevention resources for veterans in their communities.  It includes plenary sessions, customized workshops with subject-matter experts, and working sessions for teams to collaborate and identify priorities and action steps directed towards prevention.  VA’s most recent Mayor’s Challenge took place in March 2019.  Teams discussed a variety of topics including lethal means safety, safe messaging, suicide risk screening and assessment, peer support, community partnerships, and rural and faith-based initiatives.

Mental Health Care for Other Than Honorable Discharge to Prevent Veteran Suicide

Historically, VA has struggled to reach other than honorable (OTH) discharge veterans in need of help.  Veterans with OTH discharges do not typically qualify for VA benefits, even though many have service-related trauma.  As a group, they have a very high suicide rate.  To address this issue, VA has made mental health care treatment available to former service members with OTH discharges through two new programs.  The first initiative, established in 2017, is specifically focused on expanding access to assist former OTH service members who are in mental health distress and may be at risk for suicide or other adverse behaviors.  Former service members with an OTH discharge may receive care for their mental health emergency for an initial period of up to 90 days, which can include inpatient, residential, or outpatient care.  During this time, the Veterans Health Administration and the Veterans Benefits Administration will work together to determine if the mental health condition is a result of a service-related injury, making the service member eligible for ongoing coverage for that condition.

The second initiative focuses on the implementation of Public Law 115-141, which notifies former service members of the mental and behavioral health care they may now be eligible for.  VA sent out over 475,000 letters to former service members explaining what they may be eligible for, how long they may be able to receive care and how they can get started.  These initiatives are making an impact as 1,818 individuals with an OTH discharge received mental health treatment in 2018, which was three times more than the 648 treated in 2017.

Increased Access to Mental Health Care for National Guard and Reserves

National Guardsmen and Reservists face unique mental health challenges compared to active duty servicemembers, such as limited access to timely, quality care and programs tailored to their needs.  However, in fiscal year 2019, the Department of Defense (DoD) provided $8 million for a National Guard preventative mental health pilot program.  Approximately $4 million was allocated for the Army National Guard, and the other $4 million was allocated for the Air National Guard.  Furthermore, in March 2019, bipartisan legislation was introduced that would expand National Guard and Reserve access to mental health care, regardless of deployment status.  The Care and Readiness Enhancement (CARE) for Reservists Act is meant to address the high rate of suicide among members of the National Guard and Reserve.  Specifically, the bill would close a gap in mental health care and allow the DoD to further fund behavioral and/or mental health care, regardless of whether a service member is within their pre-deployment window or has never deployed at all.  The bill would also allow members of the Guard and Reserve to seek care at Vet Centers for mental health screening and counseling, employment assessments, education training and other services.

Veterans Crisis Line

 For more immediate help, VA has implemented the veterans crisis line equipped with specially trained responders ready to help veterans 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  The Veterans Crisis Line connects service members and veterans in crisis, as well as their family members and friends, with qualified, caring VA responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text-messaging service.  Veterans can access the Crisis Line in any of the following ways:

  • Dial 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 to talk to someone
  • Send a text message to 838255 to connect with a VA responder
  • Start a confidential online chat session at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
  • Take a self-check quiz at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Quiz to learn whether stress and depression might be affecting you.
  • Find a VA facility near you.
  • Visit MilitaryCrisisLine.net if you are an active duty service member, guardsman, or reservist.