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National Journal: Q+A with Sen. John Boozman

The Arkansas Republican discusses his bill to address veteran mental health and suicide prevention.

Jul 21 2023

By: Savannah Behrmann

July 19, 2023

Sen. John Boozman serves on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, where he has made it a priority to address veteran suicide. He recently cosponsored legislation with Chairman Jon Tester, the Not Just a Number Act, which would require the Veterans Affairs Department “to deepen the understanding” of which VA programs have the greatest impact in alleviating the crisis. Boozman spoke with Savannah Behrmann about what the bill means for veterans and how it builds on prior legislation. This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Can you explain the Not Just a Number Act and why it is so crucial to address the alarming number of veterans who take their own lives every day?

For many years, we have been working really hard on veteran suicide. Twenty years ago, the number was about 22 [per day], and only a few years ago, the number was about 20. In the last couple years we've had some successes and got it down to about 17. That's simply still way too high. It's unacceptable.

What we're trying to do with this bill is go a step farther than current policy. Right now, we're in a situation where the VA records medical visits and mental health appointments, and then they try and correlate that with suicides. We'd like to go a step further and see what benefits these individuals were obtaining, try and get some correlation between what programs in the VA are working and programs that aren't working.

The ones that are working, we need to provide additional funding and support. Those that aren't working in this regard, then we need to back off and not do as much. It’s just getting more information. I think by doing that, we have a much better chance of actually getting to the root of the problem: things like housing, whether a person is under financial stress at the time, all of those different components that can make individuals become depressed or cause their depression to deepen.

In a hearing last week, you pressed experts about holistic views in addressing veteran suicide. You just mentioned how things like economic strain and housing may be currently overlooked as causes. Why do you think it’s crucial to factor in things like that as you address this issue?

Suicide is a complex issue, and different people have different reasons for committing suicide. I think in the VA space, we just haven't done a very good job of really trying to dig deep and find out what those reasons are, and then put a correlation to that and see if we're providing services along those lines to help veterans.

Too often in Washington, we measure success by the amount of money that is spent. That correlation is not working, because we're spending a lot of money and the numbers aren't coming down [as much as] we'd like. So this is an effort to try and look at the entire sphere of what's going on in a veteran's life. That's difficult to do, but the VA provides a lot of different resources, lots of different interactions.

The interactions regarding medical care are good—mental health appointments, fine. But, let's see what else [the veterans] are into. Let's find out whether or not they are having financial difficulties, marital problems, housing problems, if they're homeless. All of those different things can play a major factor.

You mentioned the VA tracks how many veterans died by suicide through interactions, whether that's mental health or medical appointments. Can you elaborate on why the VA may need to update and modernize its data-collection system specifically?

Well, I think that the way you solve a problem is to get all the information possible. Right now the VA is collecting some data. They need to go much further in their data collection in order to provide a better service and address this problem more fully. This is what this is all about: just getting better data, and then taking that data and saying, “Hey, this is working; this isn't working. Why don't we increase our commitment to a particular program that seems to be making a difference, in the sense that there's a correlation with providing things that seem to be helpful with preventing suicide?"

You’re the son of an Air Force master sergeant—can you talk about your personal connection to this legislation?

My dad served 23 years in the Air Force, so I understand the stresses that the families have. It's difficult when mom or dad are away for a year at a time, perhaps six months at a time. These are things that most families don't deal with. We're also concerned about underemployment for spouses because they're moving so often. All the stresses and strains make it difficult on a family.

I understand firsthand growing up in that situation. These are things that we can do a much better job of helping with quality-of-life issues. We need to do that for a lot of different reasons. Certainly, we're so proud of the men and women and their families that have elected to serve because it's definitely a family affair. We can do a better job going forward.

What is the next step for the Not Just a Number Act? Is it something you’d want to include in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act?

Usually, these things go one of two ways: It could go as a standalone by voice vote or unanimous consent, or another route would be as we move a bigger veterans' package together, this would be part of it. The VA now seems like they're supporting it, which is a great thing. Veterans' service organizations are very supportive of it.

This is an issue you’ve been focused on for years. Can you explain your hopes for this bill and advancing this issue?

Well, we were able to pass a bill a few years ago—in 2020—that attacked this issue in a different way. I think that's why we're seeing the numbers come down a little bit. What we said then was: “The VA does a good job. Many of the people that commit suicide are outside of the VA system. Perhaps they've had a bad experience or they just didn't know if they were eligible for these benefits.” So what we said was, “Let's allow people in the community that specialize in this area, that do a really good job helping people with suicide prevention, allow them to get small grants from the VA to take care of veterans, capture them and then make them aware of VA benefits. Get them into the VA system where they can get even more help.” I think that's been very helpful.

We’re having some success. We've gone from around 22 suicides a day down to 17 or so now. This is the next step: Making sure as we get people into the VA, we are also looking at the specific VA programs and making sure that they are functioning in such a way that they're good for the real needs of the veterans.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. Help is available 24/7. More information is available from the VA here.

Read the full piece from National Journal here.