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Empowering America’s veterans can help reduce suicide

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The White House’s recent report on a national strategy to reduce military and veteran suicide includes two principles that are essential to ending this public health crisis. One is that the U.S. must focus on activation, not just awareness, with suicide prevention programs. The second is that solutions must be tailored to sub-populations whenever possible. Community-based organizations have applied these principles successfully to overcome other critical issues impacting veteran populations, and by learning from their examples, the nation could more proactively and effectively reduce veteran suicide.

Veteran-serving organizations and public health agencies have worked to raise awareness of the veteran suicide crisis. Community leaders are familiar with the VA’s annual reports on veteran suicide rates, the most recent of which estimates that an average of 17 veterans die of suicide every day. However, building awareness of this crisis is not enough. Communities must engage veterans and collaborate to take the next step from awareness to activation.

As an example, The Upstate Warrior Solution (UWS), a community-based nonprofit serving veterans in the upstate region of South Carolina, successfully empowered local leaders to change their behaviors and help improve veterans’ quality of life. The organization builds relationships with veterans to understand their needs and connect them with opportunities, resources or partners, depending on their circumstances. To effectively identify and engage veterans who most need these services, UWS activated community leaders and encouraged collaboration to provide comprehensive, holistic services.

UWS overcame the challenge of awareness to activation by establishing regular communication with police stations throughout the region. Rather than simply educating first responders on veteran issues, police were encouraged to connect struggling veterans directly with UWS reps. This empowered UWS to build relationships with veterans and determine the best course for overcoming their challenges using existing community resources — whether it involved homelessness, access to health care or employment needs. To effectively reduce veteran suicide, organizations must encourage communities to activate, much as UWS did with first responders, before veterans reach a crisis point. 

The White House report emphasizes that a “one-size-fits-all” approach will not be effective in combating veteran suicide because there is no single cause behind this crisis. Risks of death will vary depending on the individual veteran by age, race, cultural background, geographic location and more. Communities instead must apply a “one-size-fits-one” approach that focuses on building one-on-one relationships with veterans to understand their unique situation. 

The Diné Naazbaa’ Partnership (DNP), a community-based program led by Navajo natives empowering the Navajo Nation’s veterans and their families, employed this approach to improve quality of life among veterans within the Navajo Nation in the Southwest. By meeting with veterans where they live, the DNP learned that a pressing challenge for veterans was securing firewood to heat their homes. This issue is unique to veterans of the Navajo Nation, and programs that employ a “one-size-fits-all” approach may not be equipped to solve this problem. 

With a more adaptive “one-size-fits-one” approach, the DNP established partnerships with local organizations and national resource providers to deliver a reliable supply of firewood directly to veterans’ homes. Even more important, the DNP maintains regular contact with veterans in the Navajo Nation to ensure proactive support. Tailoring services to unique issues can have an immense impact on the overall quality of life on a veteran and may reduce suicide risks.

Both UWS and DNP employ Community Integration, a service model developed by America’s Warrior Partnership, to activate local leaders and tailor solutions to specific veteran populations. The model provides organizations with the tools to bring together groups, community leaders and businesses to proactively connect with veterans and bridge gaps in resources, services and opportunities.

As the White House collaborates with the VA and veteran service organizations to reduce veteran suicide, taking a page from the proactive, holistic approaches that these groups are employing may lead to more effective implementation of the Biden administration’s strategy and improve veteran lives nationwide.

Kaitlin Cashwell is director of community integration for America’s Warrior Partnership, a nonprofit that supports veterans, military members and their families. Both of her grandfathers served in the military, and two brothers-in-law serve in the U.S. Navy.  

Tags combat veterans Military personnel United States military veteran suicide

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