During Suicide Prevention Month, Trump needs to do more for troops’ mental health
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and it’s high time President Trump’s plans to reduce suicide among veterans were brought to fruition.
Last year, Trump signed an executive order to prevent veteran suicides. The PREVENTS plan is still skin and bones 18 months later. The promise to work with non-profit groups and develop holistic ways of addressing the mental health needs of the men and women who served the country hasn’t materialized, despite Trump’s overselling the whole idea back in June. The administration even touts its “PREVENTS’ accomplishments,’ which seem to be none. At least that’s what the Veteran’s Affairs website says.
It looks like PREVENTS is just a shell of an idea with no policy infrastructure. Even if we give the president the benefit of the doubt and blame any inaction on the virus that’s diverted everyone’s attention, the proof of his lack of concern for this population is Trump’s other policies, ones that predate the pandemic.
Much of his budget threatens veterans’ health. Any attempt to slash Medicaid — something that his administration keeps trying to do — forgets that 1.7 million veterans rely on that program for their health care needs.
If the commander in chief were a true military man, he’d know that one of the best ways to protect veterans’ mental health is to make sure that active-duty service members are psychologically healthy.
As a former Marine, I know that not enough is being done to address the mental health problems of people on active duty. My commanders stressed the importance of mental health in word, but base resources were stretched. I had one Marine who called for a mental health appointment, only to be told the soonest she could be seen was four weeks away. She could have gone to a civilian provider, but military TRICARE insurance wouldn’t have covered it.
The statistics bear out the problem. Over the past five years, rates of suicide by service members have consistently increased by 6 percent per year. The growth rate isn’t even slowing. I will never forget arriving to work one day shortly before leaving active duty, to find two military police cars in front of my barracks office. They were there because one of the Marines living in the barracks had killed himself overnight. This young man didn’t even have a chance to become a veteran.
The military disproportionately attracts people who have suffered Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and the VA knows ACEs contribute to suicide rates too. It’s actually hopeful that people who are trying to get some stability in their life have faith in the armed forces to provide that. And it’s a sign of resilience. As much as lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) want to dampen recruitment — AOC proposed a bill to reduce recruitment on online gaming platforms that was promptly voted down by the House — joining the service saves and improves many lives.
That’s why we can’t tolerate that the job also threatens the lives it‘s supposed to improve. Existing prevention programs are not enough, and it’s clear that educating troops after they’ve entered the military is too late. We already know that the population most at risk for suicide are young male enlisted troops, E1-E4. That’s roughly the 17-24 age range.
Ultimately, to really prevent suicide we have to improve mental and emotional health resources in K-12 schools and the Trump administration’s record on this is also subpar. Last year the Department of Education wanted to cut funding for Title IV programs which can be used for mental health services in schools. In fact. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed allowing these funds to be used for gun purchases for teachers in a questionable plan to improve school safety. It seems that the Trump administration couldn’t be working less to address the holistic causes of military suicide, but before, during and after enlistment.
In response to Trump’s “rolling out’ the PREVENTS program in June 2020, 15 months after it was first unveiled, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Chairman of the House Committee of Veteran’s Affairs, said “Tepid calls for more research, interagency coordination, and meek public education campaigns won’t do enough to end this crisis — we have much more substantial work to do to prevent veteran suicide and ultimately help save veterans’ lives,”
That substantial work isn’t being done. PREVENTS plan hasn’t advanced in 18 months and there’s little to no attention being paid to military suicide which is on its way to becoming endemic. At the very least, the President should recognize the mental health needs of his troops, both active duty and veterans, this month and do something to help them.
Kelsey Baker is a former Marine. She deployed twice to the Middle East and holds an M.A. in diplomacy, with a concentration in international terrorism. Follow her on Twitter: @BzGorda.