Weekly Columns

When actor Robin Williams tragically took his own life this summer, his suicide shined a spotlight on the mental health crisis in our nation. While the famous comedian publically acknowledged that he had long struggled with addiction, few knew how dark of a world this seemingly happy person lived in. 

This is, unfortunately, a story heard too often. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in our country and the second leading cause of death among 10-34 year-olds. 

That is at the core of the struggle our nation has with how to address the mental health crisis—how do we know when someone is on the edge? 

One particular segment of the population where we are struggling to identify at-risk individuals is in our veterans’ community.  

Data from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) shows the number of daily veteran suicides at 22. This may not even give us full insight into the extent of the problem because the data and numbers are only from the 21 states that reported from 1999 through 2011. Regardless, one suicide a day is one too many. 

That is why VA is among those actively working to raise awareness about suicide prevention. September is Suicide Prevention Month and VA, along with the Department of Defense (DoD), launched a joint projected called “The Power of 1.” This campaign highlights ways veterans can seek help.                                                                                                               

The idea behind this campaign is that one person can save a life by learning the warning signs and helping a veteran at risk of suicide receive the help he or she needs. 

You can help by visiting http://spreadtheword.veteranscrisisline.net/suicide-prevention-month-2014/ to download shareable materials — including posters, flyers, web banners, and social media content —to help raise awareness of support. The goal is to spread the word about the Veterans Crisis Line, a toll-free, confidential resource that connects at-risk veterans and their loved ones with professional help. The phone number is 1-800-273-8255. 

Congress is working to address this problem as well. I helped introduce legislation to reduce prescription drug abuse among our nation's servicemembers and veterans by allowing the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to coordinate drug take-back programs with VA and DoD. 

Data suggests a clear correlation between prescription drug abuse, mental illness and suicide among our veterans. A 2012 Army report found that 29 percent of suicides involved individuals with a known history of using medication to treat symptoms of mental disorders. The report recommended the establishment of a military drug take-back program to help combat prescription drug misuse or abuse in the ranks.  

In addition to a drug take-back program, we need a connected network of VA pharmacies to protect against potential abuse and make sure that our veterans receive only the dosage of medication prescribed. We also need to correct the practice of overprescribing pain medication. 

Suicide is a major concern for our veterans’ community. The scars of war are not just physical, but mental as well. If we ignore that fact, we are doing a disservice to the men and women who have put their lives on the line to defend our freedoms.