Weekly Columns

In 2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released the findings of the nation’s most comprehensive analysis of veteran suicide rates in the United States.

VA examined over 55 million records from 1979 to 2014 in an effort to better inform its suicide prevention programs. The study’s findings were nothing short of alarming. 

We know that 20 veterans commit suicide each day, and the vast majority of those veterans have not sought care with the VA. In fact, 14 of those 20 are not under the care of the VA.

In Arkansas, where they represent about eight percent of the state’s population, veterans account for about 20 percent of suicides. 

Based on this data and other trends, the VA has been stepping up efforts to develop meaningful suicide prevention programs. 

For starters, VA expanded the 24/7 Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) which provides immediate access to mental health crisis intervention and support. The VCL is a critical tool, a last line of defense in the sense that it allows veterans in distress to connect with highly skilled responders before something tragic happens. I’m supporting an effort in the Senate that would authorize a formal study and report on how to maximize the effectiveness of the VCL.

VA has also stepped up its efforts to identify at-risk veterans and provide assistance before they reach the point of desperation. Screening and assessment processes have been set up throughout the system to help identify patients at risk for suicide. The goal is to determine veterans who run the highest risk of suicide to head off a tragedy. Veterans who have been identified as being high-risk receive an extra level of care to ensure that every effort is made to help them with their struggles.

Congress is working to provide VA with the personnel, services and proper tools to help veterans facing mental illness struggles, but Washington can’t do it all. That was the message shared by Robert Wallace, the Executive Director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Washington Office, during his recent testimony before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. 

During the hearing, I asked Mr. Wallace what we need to focus on to reduce the high rate of suicides among the veteran population. I noted that Congress is appropriating resources and VA is turning that into action, but the numbers continue to trend in the wrong direction. I wanted to find out what he felt we need to do to reverse those numbers.

Mr. Wallace’s message was that Washington is doing the right things, but government can’t do it all. It takes all of us working together and much of the heavy lifting needs to be done at the grassroots level. This is especially true since most of the veterans who commit suicide are not under the care of the VA. He highlighted the work VFW has undertaken to eliminate the stigma around mental health issues and the organization’s ongoing efforts to bring clinicians into communities to provide screening and help for at-risk veterans. Mr. Wallace said that the government has some great programs, but it takes organizations like the VFW to fill in the gaps at the local grassroots level. 

It truly is a team effort. Washington has the want to help, and I am truly committed to ensuring that the federal government exhausts every effort to that end. Veterans service organizations, however, have the heart. These organizations are on the ground and first touch capabilities that the federal government could never match. We need to help them, help us in this endeavor as even one veteran suicide is too many.