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Suicide is not just a veteran problem — it is an American problem

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U.S. service members stand beneath the U.S. flag in this Jan. 17, 2019, file photo.

In 1997, I had the privilege of helping to draft congressional legislation that declared suicide prevention as a national priority. It was the product of many champions, including Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), whose father died by suicide, as well as Jerry and Elsie Weyrauch, who were determined that fewer mothers and fathers would experience the pain that they had felt after their own daughter had completed suicide. Senate Resolution 84 was the first step, and represented a significant milestone in our nation’s journey towards supporting those who struggle with thoughts of suicide.

On March 5, President Trump took another important step when he established a VA task force to address the issue of suicide among veterans. Over 6,500 veterans die by suicide each year. The deceased represent all branches of the military, many theaters of war, and all ranks of service.

{mosads}As a Navy veteran myself, I applaud this decisive step. But I implore the president to go even further, and to make a commitment to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have also suffered losses to the tragedy of suicide, even if they have never served in our armed forces.


Suicide is not just a veteran problem. It is an American problem, and it is getting worse. In 2017, 47,000 Americans died by suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death for people aged 35 to 54. More than 10 million people in the United States struggle with suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

But in spite of the toll that suicide takes on families and communities, we have yet to devote meaningful resources to defeating it. Research on suicide prevention is woefully underfunded, especially compared to our investments in ending cancer, heart disease, and other leading causes of death. These worthy investments have yielded improvements in public health.

It is time to renew our national effort to end suicide for veterans and non-veterans alike. The president’s executive order provides a blueprint.

A national effort should address all sub-populations at high risk of suicide. Veterans, as well as active duty military, must be on that list. So too must LGBTQ youth, men and women in the middle years of life, American Indian/Alaska Natives, and older adults. And while the reasons for suicide attempts and deaths may be different among these populations, research is now helping us identify evidence-based strategies that can prevent suicide. Applying these strategies in health systems, social services, and community organizations that serve at-risk populations will save lives.

A national effort must also promote collaboration and innovation at the community level. Importantly, the president’s plan does this, as it calls for a grant program to fund community-based efforts to improve health services for veterans.

This is critical at a time when 70 percent of veterans who die by suicide are not in VA care. But the need for improved coordination and access to social services is not limited to veterans. All Americans need this. Greater investments in local programming is needed, especially with research showing that behavioral health interventions can prevent suicide.

Finally, a national effort must address the issue of professional training for clinicians. Emerging research suggests that fifty percent of clinical staff have never been trained to address suicide risk in their patients, and may not be aware of best practices in supporting a client who is experiencing suicidal crisis. It is imperative that we address this gap and help providers receive the training that they need.

{mosads}I am proud of our nation’s resolve to never forget the strength and sacrifice of those who have served. But we do a disservice to every American if we only fight to address suicide among our veterans, while leaving their countrymen and women to suffer in silence. Their lives are no less worthy of our nation’s attention.

The president’s plan is a worthy next step and, if implemented, it will help thousands of veterans access care that they need. But let us not think that this is the only action we can take. We must continue the work that Jerry and Elsie Weyrauch began two decades ago, and to create a comprehensive, national movement to prevent suicide among all Americans.

Jerry Reed is a senior vice president for Practice Leadership at Education Development Center and serves on the Executive Committee of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

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