Weekly Columns

Arkansans have unsurprisingly experienced a range of emotions as a result of the coronavirus. It has changed the way we live, led to the deaths of loved ones and created economic uncertainty in our households.

More than half of Americans report that COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their health according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. As we recognize September as Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, we must renew our commitment to helping those struggling to find hope and purpose. I’ve been particularly passionate about helping our veterans community get the care and attention these heroes deserve and have worked to strengthen programs aimed at preventing veteran suicides. 

The good news is we’re making progress.

Earlier this month, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released its annual report on veteran suicide prevention that revealed a decrease in veteran suicides from 2018 to 2019. This is certainly a step in the right direction and a signal that enhancements to the VA’s mental health programs are making a positive difference. 

Each veteran suicide is too many. My colleagues on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and I are committed to ensuring veterans have access to VA resources no matter where they live. 

We understand that funding alone will not solve this problem. In recent years, we’ve taken a new approach that includes investing in mental health programs while also leveraging the expertise and outreach of veteran-serving nonprofits that have demonstrated success in identifying and addressing the challenges veterans experience. 

In Arkansas, participants have benefited from the services provided by community organizations where the VA’s outreach has been limited or veterans have been hesitant to accept its services. We’ve harnessed these efforts into a policy that creates a VA grant program to empower veteran-serving non-profits and other community networks to expand their successful programs and connect with veterans who are not currently using VA resources.  

I’m optimistic we will see this initiative build momentum and tap into even more sources of expertise that can help reach and engage veterans at risk, and ultimately save lives.

Coordination and collaboration are key to combating this crisis. We know that we are better and stronger when we work together, and it should be no different when it comes to suicide prevention.

As the author of this new program, which was included in the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act that was signed into law last year, I welcomed the news that the VA has begun to implement it. VA Secretary Denis McDonough told me he expects the first grant will be awarded early in 2022. I will continue to monitor the progress and provide vigorous oversight of the roll-out to ensure the VA is following congressional intent. This is too important to get wrong.  

Delivering mental health care is a vital component of the promise we made to the men and women who served our nation in uniform. Expanding opportunities they have to connect with VA services is vital to providing the resources and care they deserve.