White House plan for veteran suicide prevention must involve communities

White House plan for veteran suicide prevention must involve communities
© Bonnie Cash

We have lost 65,000 veterans to suicide since 2010 — more than the number of our troops killed in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Department of Veterans Affairs has been addressing veteran suicide relentlessly, and recent data shows a 7 percent decrease in 2019 to 17 veterans dying by suicide each day. We can find no solace in this change, though, as the rate is still far too high.

If we are to make a true difference, we must focus our prevention efforts on partnerships between the government and community organizations, veterans and family members. Social support delivered in veterans’ communities is an essential ingredient in the fight to keep veterans alive. 

The White House recently released a five-point strategy laying out a series of actions the federal government will take to address our country’s veteran suicide epidemic. The departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice and Veterans Affairs (VA), as well as the Office of Emergency Medical Services within the Department of Transportation, will engage in a coordinated federal response that is long overdue. Among its five focus areas, its focus on “lethal means safety” must be the top priority. The No. 1 method veterans use to end their lives is through firearms — 70 percent of all suicides.

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What veterans need is for federal agencies to partner with and financially support existing, innovative community-based initiatives that are preventing veteran suicide at the community and individual levels. Without a focus on addressing prevention in veterans’ social networks, we won’t be doing everything we can to help. Veterans are most likely to trust another veteran when it comes to health care and lethal means safety, and we know social support is a leading factor in improving treatment outcomes and reducing isolation that contributes to suicide. 

There is also another problem: Most veterans do not seek care at the VA, and those receiving care (or no care) outside of the VA have the highest rate of suicide. Most veterans receive care and support from private organizations in their communities, or from their families and friends — and although the White House plan addresses the need to use public-private partnerships — this should be its primary focus.

To reach veterans who are at risk for suicide and have access to firearms or other lethal means, prevention is most effective coming from people they already trust. Many veteran-focused community-based organizations create opportunities for peer support, volunteerism and socializing. In particular, many organizations train veteran peers in suicide prevention in the event that a fellow veteran may need their support. One example of building on these close bonds to address suicide is the Overwatch Project with its #JustFKNAsk campaign, the equivalent of the “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink and Drive” campaign, only instead of talking about alcohol and driving, it helps them talk about firearms and suicide. By designing the campaign with veterans, it is street-tested and relatable.

Another tenet of the White House’s plan is addressing upstream factors that can create a network of support to prevent veterans from facing economic or other crises that can lead to feelings of hopelessness. People who are instrumental in veterans’ lives can be the first line of offense in observing changes in a veteran’s risk level. A great example of a federally supported program that engages community-based organizations in this way is the VA’s ETS Sponsorship Program. It ensures that when service members leave the military and are at the highest risk of suicide, they are paired with a (veteran or civilian) “sponsor” trained to support them. By partnering with local, community organizations, veterans who did not register for VA care can get connected.

To make an impact on veteran suicide rates, we must focus on the private-public partnerships and support activities that engage all of us in giving back to those who have served us. These robust, thoughtful policies on how to connect veterans with people who want to help will ultimately save lives. 

Elisa Borah is the director of the Institute for Military and Veteran Family Wellness and a research associate professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.