White House plan for veteran suicide prevention must involve communities

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We’ve lost 65,000 veterans committed suicide since 2010 – more than the number of our soldiers killed in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Department of Veterans Affairs is relentlessly tackling veteran suicide, and recent data shows a 7% decrease in 2019 to 17 veterans committing suicide every day. We cannot find any consolation in this change, however, as the rate is still far too high.

If we are to make a real difference, we must focus our prevention efforts on partnerships between government and community organizations, veterans and their families. Social support in veteran communities is a critical ingredient in the fight to keep veterans alive.

The White House recently released a five-point strategy outlining a series of measures the federal government will take to combat the epidemic of suicide among our country’s veterans. The ministries of Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice and Veterans Affairs (VA), as well as the Office of Emergency Medical Services of the Ministry of Transport, will embark on a long overdue coordinated federal response. Among his five areas of intervention, the emphasis on “deadly safety means” must be the top priority. The # 1 method used by veterans to end their own life is the use of firearms – 70 percent of all suicides.

What veterans need is for federal agencies to partner up and financially support existing innovative community initiatives that prevent veteran suicide at the community and individual levels. Without focusing on prevention in veterans’ social media, we won’t do everything we can to help. Veterans are more likely to trust another Veteran when it comes to health care and the safety of deadly means, and we know that social support is a major factor in improving treatment outcomes and ensuring the safety of life. reducing the isolation that contributes to suicide.

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

To reach veterans who are at risk of suicide and have access to guns or other lethal means, prevention is most effective by coming from people they already trust. Many community organizations focused on veterans create opportunities for peer support, volunteering and socialization. In particular, many organizations train veteran peers in suicide prevention in case another veteran needs their support. An example of using these strong ties to fight suicide is the Monitoring Project with its #JustFKNAsk campaign, the equivalent of the “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink and Drive” campaign, only instead of talking about drinking and driving, it helps them talk about guns and suicide. By designing the campaign with veterans, it is street tested and accessible.

Another tenet of the White House plan is to tackle the 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. The people who play a pivotal role in the lives of Veterans can be the first line of offense in observing changes in a Veteran’s level of risk. A prime example of a federally supported program that engages community organizations in this way is the ETS sponsorship program. It ensures that when service members leave the military and are at the greatest risk of suicide, they are matched with a trained “sponsor” (veteran or civilian) to support them. By partnering with local community organizations, veterans who have not signed up for VA care can get online.

To have an impact on veteran suicide rates, we need to focus on public-private partnerships and support activities that commit us all to giving back to those who have served us. These strong and thoughtful policies on how to connect veterans with those who want to help will ultimately save lives.

Elisa Borah is Director of the Institute for Military and Veteran Family Wellness and Associate Research Professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin.


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