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White House Issues New Guidance for Combating Veteran Suicides

November 10, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck
White House Issues New Guidance for Combating Veteran Suicides

WASHINGTON — The White House recently issued evidence-informed guidance for reducing the tragedy of veteran suicides, as 65,000 veterans have died by suicide since 2010. 

“Suicide among service members, veterans, and their families is a public health and national security crisis. Far too many of our nation’s veterans and service members have died at their own hands, an overwhelming majority of them as the result of a firearm,” said the Biden administration in a written statement

The guidance outlines new goals for reducing military and veteran suicide through five strategies focused on improving lethal means safety, enhancing crisis care, increasing access to effective care, addressing upstream risk factors and improving data sharing and research coordination among the Department of Veteran Affairs, Health and Human Services, Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy.

“This is the type of approach we need which is something more comprehensive. Data sharing won’t solve the immediate needs of suicide prevention, but it is something we need for the long-term. In the short-term, to focus on lethal means counseling and crisis care is necessary for preventing suicides now,” said Rajeev Ramchand, co-director of RAND Epstein Family Veterans Policy Research Institute, during a phone call with The Well News.

Ramchand said that there has been an uptick in military and veteran suicide deaths within the last decade. 

He first got involved in federal efforts to combat veteran suicides in 2008 after the DOD saw a substantial increase in deaths.

In 2019, an executive order known as the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide, or PREVENTS, began a three-year effort to unify public health approaches to combatting veteran suicides under the VA’s 2018 National Strategy for Preventing Suicide.

“There has been an effort that has been growing, and it’s been a number one concern for DOD and VA for a long time, but the approaches are changing,” said Ramchand. 

In the coming months, the guidance directs government agencies to create and implement a coordinated approach to raise awareness about suicide prevention among veterans, service members and families. 

The guidance also focuses on educating and training health care providers and crisis responders to reduce access to lethal means through methods like increasing safe storage of firearms and medications. 

Ramchand said the focus on firearms is appropriate as they are the main way that veterans use to die by suicide. Information provided by the VA shows that nearly 70% of veteran suicides are by firearm, and approximately 1/3 of veterans store their firearms loaded and unlocked.

“The evidence is pretty consistent here. It suggests that for somebody that is impulsive, having time and space between when they have that thought of suicide and when they have access to that firearm can be a life-or-death strategy,” said Ramchand. 

The VA recently launched a Lethal Means Safety campaign focused on firearms and suicide prevention to increase the time and space between individuals facing a suicidal crisis and a firearm and move individuals to enact safe storage practices.

“Suicide is a complex issue with no single cause,” said a spokesperson from the VA, in an email to The Well News. 

“In 2019, 45,861 adult Americans died by suicide. Of those, 6,261 were veterans. These numbers are more than statistics. They reflect individual souls, lives ended before their full stories were written,” continued the VA spokesperson. 

When it comes to understanding data regarding risk factors, Ramchand said there is evidence that suggests that veterans who die by suicide are more likely to experience a sexual trauma.

 “We have to think about military sexual trauma, and cohort differences like this happening among Vietnam War vets, Gulf War or post-9/11 veterans,” said Ramchand.

Ramchand said data also shows that suicide rates increase five years after separation from the military. That’s why non-profits like the Maine Veterans Project have been working to address the mental health challenges that veterans face when returning to civilian life.

Shawn “Doc” Goodwin, the president and founder of the Maine Veterans Project, said that of the 1,500 veterans he’s served since the non-profit was created in 2015, many were struggling with issues of isolation and detachment from the military community. 

“It’s not the violence overseas we miss, it’s the feeling of being needed,” said Goodwin.

Goodwin has helped navigate veterans in crisis to a VA clinic or refer them to a suicide prevention call service that will send a peer support team to their home address.

“We were only focusing people on the edge of the cliff, but are now doing wellness and trying to find them before they reach that cliff,” said Goodwin. 

This year the non-profit decided to go a step further in combating veteran suicides by providing a recreation-based program for veterans to socialize through events like ice fishing, paintballing or booking a private box at a concert.

“Since May, we’ve provided 43 in-person events for veterans,” said Goodwin.

Through strategic partnerships and volunteer efforts, the non-profit also provides vehicle repairs and home improvements for veterans who cannot financially afford them to try to eliminate what stressors they can and reduce the chance of crisis.

Goodwin described the story of a Vietnam veteran who came to the MVP in crisis because a contractor had run away with most of his money, leaving his roof still leaking in multiple places. 

A hardware company two hours away from where the man lived decided to donate shingles, and one-by-one more materials were donated from local partners to build a new roof for the veteran that was entirely free of charge. 

“After that day, we started hammering home improvement projects like you wouldn’t believe,” said Goodwin.

Goodwin said that providing resources for home improvements or holding community events has so far helped to save the lives of 27 veterans who came to MVP in crisis. 

“When we really want to address veteran suicide, it is a group conversation, and involves government entities. It involves data and finding it, and actually addressing why this happens,” said Goodwin. 

Alexa can be reached at [email protected]

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