September is National Suicide Prevention Month. I’ve made reducing the rate of suicide, particularly among veterans in Arkansas and around the country, one of my top priorities. Our men and women who are serving or have served in uniform suffer a disproportionately higher rate of suicide compared to the general population. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that more than 20 veterans die by suicide daily. This suicide rate among veterans is nearly twice that of the general public. Veterans are particularly vulnerable and account for about 20 percent of suicides in Arkansas. This is truly a national crisis.
Congress is working to change the statistics. Over the last ten years, we’ve nearly quadrupled the VA’s funding for suicide prevention efforts. Unfortunately, the additional resources haven’t significantly improved the situation. As a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I urged VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to do more to prevent veteran suicides.
One way to decrease the number of veterans who take their own lives is to create a VA grant program to leverage veteran-serving nonprofits and other community networks. Working with outside organizations will be particularly important because only six of the 20 veterans who die by suicide are receiving VA services. We have to tap into other groups that may be reaching these individuals.
In June, I introduced the IMPROVE Wellbeing of Veterans Act to allow the VA to tap into current community programs and provide a framework for better coordinating those community efforts and measuring the results.Secretary Wilkie called this bill the “key” to unlocking the veteran suicide crisis. This month he urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pass companion legislation introduced by my colleagues in the House of Representatives.
There are ongoing efforts at all levels of government to tackle this emergency. In Arkansas, we are blessed to have community-based groups providing support, services and outreach to at-risk veterans. I’ve heard how individual organizations are working to save the lives of our veterans, and as part of the“Serving AR Vets” tour, we brought together Natural State organizations and locally-serving representatives from federal government agencies, all of whom are working toward this common goal.
Coordination and collaboration among veteran-serving parties will empower us to harness the information, resources and knowledge concerning the effectiveness of suicide prevention programs. This will enable us to model future initiatives off successful services and make changes to efforts that haven’t shown results. Leveraging the experiences of organizations working to decrease veteran suicides is a more effective approach that will help save more lives.
Having the support of government agencies, private organizations and individuals is critical to addressing this epidemic. No one entity can solve this problem. It must be a cooperative effort that includes input from veteran-serving organizations to the VA and the Department of Defense. We all share the same commitment. Sharing information and implementing policies to make it easier for Americans in a crisis will go a long way to help reduce veteran suicides.