Weekly Columns

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. With passage of the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, the Senate has taken action to pave a new path forward in suicide prevention and implement an improved strategy to give hope and purpose to veterans who live with invisible injuries. This comprehensive bill will connect more veterans to mental healthcare services to show them their best days are ahead. 

We know the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) existing suicide prevention programs are not doing enough to stem the tide of this national crisis. The VA estimates 20 veterans commit suicide each day. That number has remained roughly unchanged despite an increase in funding. Only six of those 20 veterans are receiving healthcare services at the VA. By sharing information and collaborating with veteran-serving non-profits and other community organizations, we can expand our network and provide veterans with the help they need.

That’s why I introduced the IMPROVE Well-being for Veterans Act, legislation to create a VA grant program to leverage veteran-serving non-profits and other community networks and better measure the effectiveness of existing programs. The Senate-passed Hannon Act includes language from the IMPROVE bill to allow the VA to harness the ideas and successes of non-profits and community organizations that have built effective suicide prevention programs. 

In Arkansas, we are blessed to have a variety of community-based groups providing support, services and outreach to at-risk veterans. It makes sense that we build off their successful results and provide support for positive outcomes to continue. 

In Mountain Home, the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) chapter developed the Veteran Outreach Program to reduce and prevent veteran suicide. In the three years since this initiative was launched, veteran suicides have decreased by 30 percent in Baxter County.  

The chapter’s Vice Commander George Wolford, PhD recently submitted written testimony to the Senate VA Committee about the importance of the Senate-passed legislation and outlined how enhanced coordination between organizations like the Mountain Home DAV and the VA can benefit veterans. “It is the personal contact at the local level that has made the difference,” he wrote. 

More than 50,000 organizations nationwide provide suicide prevention services for veterans. These groups developed effective programs to connect with veterans, provide support and save lives which is reversing suicide rates. Authorizing the VA to provide grants to non-profits in the community, establishing a framework to coordinate these efforts and expanding outreach to more veterans is an approach VA Secretary Robert Wilkie called “key” to unlocking the veteran suicide crisis.

Earlier this month, the secretary urged the House of Representatives to pass this bill. This follows calls by more than 30 veteran community organizations encouraging House members to quickly pass the landmark legislation.  

We are moving in the right direction, but we’re nearing the end of the 116th Congress. Time is of the essence or we will have to restart the legislative process. The longer we wait to have this bill signed into law, the more veterans we fail to support with this new approach. I applaud the Senate for advancing this bill, and I urge my colleagues in the House of Representatives to quickly approve this legislation so we can reassure veterans that a bright future is ahead of them.