Veteran suicide prevention must not become partisan issue for Congress

Veteran suicide prevention must not become partisan issue for Congress
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Suicide prevention is one of the most tragic challenges that our country faces, and it is particularly heartbreaking when those at risk have served with distinction. Seventeen veterans die by suicide each day across our country, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and that makes our veterans more likely to die by suicide than civilians.

While we know there is not a single solution to prevent suicide, research demonstrates there are things that work. Leaders in Congress and in the administration are on the brink of finally advancing meaningful policy to combat veteran suicide, which could start to address the overall suicide epidemic in our country. They must not allow politics to hinder this.

While the Senate and the House review suicide prevention packages, they would be wise to consider a tiered approach used by Veterans Affairs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. To have the greatest chance for reducing suicide rates, they advocate targeting three groups of all veterans, those at some but not extensive risk, and the very few who are at high risk.

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The institutions recommend that Veterans Affairs increase the suicide risk assessment and firearms safety training to all Veterans Affairs staffers and contractors, as it is limited to mental health providers. Around 70 percent of veterans who die by suicide use firearms, agency statistics have shown. Veterans who use firearms die 85 percent of the time, compared with less than 4 percent for those who use drug overdoses. This is critical because 90 percent of those who survive a suicide attempt will not try again.

Safety training and safe storage of guns and opioids have been effective with reducing suicide rates. Like other things that lower risk, such as pill bottle locks and airbags, a policy that promotes safe storage of firearms are essential to any suicide prevention effort. They are also supported by the surgeon general, firearms advocates, and veterans groups, and they are included with the White House Prevents Task Force guidelines.

In order to reach veterans at some risk of suicide, it is essential to train all mental health providers working with veterans in military culture and the use of proper treatment. Overwhelming research demonstrates that, as a group, community providers outside Veterans Affairs are less informed in both the areas. Providers within Veterans Affairs have this training, but as more veterans receive care outside the agency, this need is critical.

The transition from active duty to civilian life remains a high risk time for suicide among veterans, according to agency research. We have to do a better job reaching the men and women who have defended our country for this vulnerable time. That would help those at greatest risk of suicide. One way to do so is to have service members participate in some mental health programs in the months leading up to discharge. They should also receive assistance in signing up for federal benefits and using resources. There have been some hopeful actions taken in the last few months.

The White House has released the Prevents Roadmap, which is a suicide prevention legislation that was unanimously approved in the Senate and establishes a community grants program for veterans, and also calls for more innovative research, as the House Veterans Affairs Committee has released more than 30 bills to go with the Senate legislation and added accountability for the White House Prevents Task Force guidelines.

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But more work on this issue must be done to enact the critical measures and produce one truly comprehensive and bipartisan suicide prevention package. In my experience with legislation, we often settle for sufficient, but I encourage more leaders to remember the West Point cadets prayer and “make us choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong.”

At this important juncture, we must take every opportunity to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong. In 2014, one landmark law which expanded access to care for veterans was passed with support from both sides of the aisle. The Choice Act is one case when meaningful bipartisan policy is achievable. We do not have to agree on every single thing, but it is critical to agree on some things. This must be one of those things.

Robert McDonald served as secretary of Veterans Affairs for the Obama administration. He is the Graham Fellow with the George Bush Institute, where he serves as a key member of the Military Service Initiative team.