Weekly Columns

For more than a decade, Congress has improved access to new and existing treatments for veterans at risk of suicide and increased funding for programs to support suicide prevention. Unfortunately, the number of veterans who commit suicide each day has remained roughly unchanged. It’s clear the approach we’re taking isn’t working. It’s time to implement a new strategy.

There are more than 50,000 organizations that provide suicide prevention services for veterans. These non-profits and community organizations play a vital role and have taken the lead to build effective programs. We have some great examples of innovative methods happening in Arkansas.

Retired Sgt. Maj. Lance Nutt was looking for help beyond the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) after his 30-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps. He saw a void that needed to be filled and established  Sheep Dog Impact Assistance. Since 2010, this Rogers-based organization has been making a difference in the lives of veterans and guiding them to a purpose-driven life of community, camaraderie and service. 

The retired Marine continues to see a gap between the services the VA provides and what veterans need, and encourages investing in programs that improve veterans’ outlooks and validate the idea that their best life is still ahead. He recently shared his experiences with me and other policymakers during a virtual veterans mental health town hall that included other leaders from veteran-serving non-profits. Our discussion focused on the need for collaboration, community action and the willingness to try something new.

It makes sense that we harness the ideas and successes of these advocates into sound policy. That’s why I’ve championed a new concept that would allow the VA to tap into this network of non-profits in the community, establish a framework to coordinate these efforts and offer grants to expand outreach to better measure the effectiveness of these programs. This proposal was included in the Senate VA Committee-passed comprehensive bill that expands veterans’ access to mental health services.  

This is a critical first step. While there is still work to be done to get this across the finish line and signed into law, there is momentum and support for this collaboration from others, notably VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.

Secretary Wilkie has called this idea “key” to unlocking the veteran suicide crisis. He led the development of the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) and incorporated my initiative in the plan. Unveiled in mid-June, the national strategy aims to strengthen connections and services to ensure veterans get the support they need. 

Allowing the VA to leverage veteran-serving nonprofits and other community networks is necessary because 70 percent of the veterans who commit suicide aren’t receiving VA services to begin with. We need to make certain the men and women who are living with invisible injuries know where to go to help them cope with and ease their struggles. By tapping into groups that may already be reaching these individuals, we can improve care and reverse the trend of veteran suicide. 

It’s time to authorize and implement new policies that improve the way we support and reach at-risk veterans so we can prevent suicide. I will continue to push for solutions that bring our former service members the mental health care and resources that promote better health, ensuring the best days of a veteran’s life are yet to come.