Slashing state funding for veterans will not help end the suicide epidemic

Slashing state funding for veterans will not help end the suicide epidemic

As the nation continues to grapple with how to solve the veterans’ suicide crisis, a number of solutions have been proposed.  

For example, the Suicide Prevention by Eliminating Excessive Digits (SPEED) Act, recently introduced in the Senate by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to change the veterans suicide hotline to a three-digit number, comparable to 911. 

Similarly, another piece of legislation recently introduced in the Senate, the Show Esteem and Respect for Veterans by Increasing Care and Equity (SERVICE) Act, seeks to address the suicide epidemic by allowing veterans open access to mental health care at the VA, rather than first proving that their mental health condition is directly connected to their service.

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However, one solution that definitely will not help end the suicide epidemic, is slashing state funding for veterans programs.

Nonetheless, this is precisely what’s currently happening in the State of New York, where the Veterans Outreach Center’s state funding was cut in half, and the Warrior Salute program’s funding was terminated altogether. 

According to New York State republican Senator Rich Funke

“While funding was made available for undocumented immigrants to go to college, the Senate Democrat Majority and the Governor cut the funding for the Veteran’s [O]utreach Center of Monroe county in half . . . How can the vital services needed by heroes who defended our country ever take a back seat to those who violated our laws?” 

While increasing the VA’s federal budget, which has nearly doubled in the past ten years, and is more than four times its total from fiscal year 2001 – is often discussed as part of the veterans’ suicide solution, state budgets do not receive nearly as much attention, despite the integral role state-funded and community programs play in veterans’ overall health and well-being.  

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As Dr. Richard Stone, the Executive in Charge of the Veterans Health Administration recently testified before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, “VA alone cannot end Veteran suicide.”  

He elaborated that: 

“Maintaining the integrity of VA’s mental health care system is vitally important, but it is not enough . . . We know that some Veterans may not receive any or all of their health care services from VA, for various reasons, and we want to be respectful and cognizant of those choices . . . Preventing suicide among all of the Nation’s 20 million Veterans cannot be the sole responsibility of VA; it requires a nationwide effort. Just as there is no single cause of suicide, no single organization can tackle suicide prevention alone.”

This is precisely why cuts in state funding for veterans’ programs hurts not only individual veterans, but also hurts organizations that assist VA in implementing a public health approach to suicide prevention.  

Indeed, according to the National Action Alliance for Suicidal Prevention, suicidal behavior is multi-faceted, being influenced by a combination of individual, family, community and societal factors. Accordingly, efforts to intervene prior to a suicide taking place are more likely successful when they involve a comprehensive effort between healthcare systems such as the VA, family and friends, as well as community programs.

Laura Stradley, executive director of the Veterans Outreach Center reiterated, “without the support of our local communities and legislators, the critical work we do every day is not possible.”

Of course, although funding state and community programs is important, it is not a silver bullet.  As succinctly summarized by a former VA employee, Andrew Vernon, in a recent opinion piece for Stars and Stripes, “money cannot solve all of our problems, but people can. We need to do more.” 

Vernon, who was also appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as a Board Member to the U.S. Selective Service System, added that one of the political calculations occurring in New York state is the fact that many veterans are moving out of the state due to the high cost of living. Accordingly, politicians have prioritized other programs at the expense of veterans remaining in the state. 

Referring back to his mantra that “we need to do more,” Vernon emphasized the importance of a holistic approach to the veterans’ suicide epidemic, which includes lobbying state as well as federal lawmakers to prioritize veterans’ and community healthcare programs. 

To this end, one of the things we can do is accentuate to our state lawmakers that funding for local programs that provide services to veterans is a priority. We can reiterate to them that funding for such programs goes toward outreach programs and public service announcements that increase awareness of these services. We can emphasize that the funding provides staff for programs where services like one-on-one counseling can be the difference between life and death for a veteran who is struggling. 

Most importantly, we can learn from the situation in New York. We can make state lawmakers in other states aware of the fact that local veterans programs should not be sacrificed when cuts need to be made. And, we can even save lives by doing so. 

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.