As COVID-19 crisis continues, suicide risk for veterans likely to grow

As COVID-19 crisis continues, suicide risk for veterans likely to grow
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The COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic cataclysm it has wrought, have had an enormous impact on the mental health of our country. Americans of all stripes are preoccupied with making ends meet, worried about their physical health, affected by the constant isolation, and stressed out by the uncertainty of when life will once again get back to a place of at least semi-normality. 

Now, as the trajectory of the pandemic in the United States points ever further into the future, experts are expressing concern about a rise in suicide risk among the most impacted and most vulnerable segments of our population. Perhaps more than any other group, America’s veterans are especially susceptible to this moment. 

By now, it’s fairly well-known that veteran suicides are a problem, to the point that, according to statistics, on any given day more than 20 American veterans take their own lives

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Unfortunately, the COVID crisis is making that effort more challenging even as it becomes ever more imperative. A report published recently by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute projects that for every 5 percent increase in the unemployment rate, our country will lose an additional 550 veterans to suicide annually. Additionally, according to their projections, up to 20,000 more veterans may be susceptible to substance abuse as a result of the crisis. The isolation caused by the pandemic has made a lot of already-lonely people even lonelier, further amplifying the risk of veteran suicide. 

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs deserves credit for its success in pivoting during the pandemic on the delivery of care, including the expansion of tele-health options and the offering of mental health services using digital tools. Despite those improvements, however, it appears that a large share of veterans most in need of support still face barriers in accessing it. 

According to veterans’ groups who testified recently on Capitol Hill, the challenge of serving the mental health needs of at-risk veterans has been compounded by the fact that many veterans, particularly older veterans, don’t have access to or can’t afford the necessary technology, including high-speed internet. This particular version of the digital divide short-circuits access to the vital mental health care veterans need, including access to medications, and increases the risks of suicide.

While there’s no single cause for suicide, it most often occurs when stressors and health issues converge. Depression and substance abuse are known to be significant risk factors. Suicide is also disproportionately more likely to occur among men and people with easy access to firearms — a fairly succinct description of veterans as a group. This correlation also applies to female veterans, who are 2.2 times more likely to commit suicide than women who did not serve, according to a 2019 study (the rate among male veterans is 1.3 times as high as that among men who did not serve). 

Clearly, this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic brings with it a whole host of challenges that are making the delivery of all kinds of critical services harder than ever. But it would be especially tragic if, after so many years of hard work by so many in finally bringing attention and desperately-needed progress to the issue of veteran suicide, we were to fail these most deserving of Americans at a time when they need our help most. 

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Federal, state, and local agencies serving veterans need to prioritize finding resources and methods that will not only help veterans navigate their way through this crisis but be there for them when it is finally over. In that effort, top priorities should include providing financial security expressly for veterans via the extension of CARES Act aid programs, as well as enhanced, proactive outreach, both immediately and into the pandemic’s aftermath, since health experts warn that some of the worst impacts to mental health tend not to manifest themselves fully until after the immediate crisis has passed.

It’s become a truism of the COVID era that we can’t let social distancing also become emotional distancing. This is especially important when it comes to veterans. If you know or encounter a vet who seems to be struggling under the weight of his or her burdens, lend them an ear, open your heart, and remind them there are resources available, often just a phone call away. 

America’s veterans have more than earned our respect and gratitude for helping our country through previous times of uncertainty and danger. The least we can do now is help them through this one.

Josh Newman is a veteran advocate, former U.S. Army Officer, and a former member of the California State Senate, where he chaired the Committee on Veterans Affairs. Currently, Josh runs his own small business, ArmedForce2Workforce, which assists young veterans in Southern California in their career pursuits.

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) any time of the day or night or chat online.