Veteran services

Advocacy group calls for new thinking on veteran suicides and federal spending

(The Center Square) – More than 17 veterans die by suicide every day in the United States.

Mission Roll Call wants President Joe Biden and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to make preventing veteran suicides their top priority.

Mission Roll Call executive director Cole Lyle said changes at the Veterans Health Administration, the largest integrated health care network in the United States, have been slow. This is partly due to its size. The Veterans Health Administration has 1,255 health care facilities that serve 9 million registered veterans each year.

“It’s a huge challenge to successfully implement changes or policies on a national scale,” Lyle said in an interview with The Center Square. “Most local directors have veteran medical centers or integrated service networks have tremendous flexibility to direct programs and budgets in a way that aligns with the priorities of the secretary, which is why we have advocated making it their #1 priority so that it sends a clear message to the local population to focus on this issue of veteran suicide prevention.

Lyle, a Marine who served in Afghanistan, later served as an adviser to senior leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs and on veterans policy in the U.S. Senate before leading Mission Roll Call, a veterans advocacy group. Georgia-based Mission Roll Call aims to be “a movement that gives every veteran a voice on the issues most important to them,” according to its website.

More American veterans die by suicide each year than non-veterans per capita. The suicide rate for veterans in 2019 was 52.3% higher than for non-veterans, according to the 2021 Veterans Suicide Prevention Annual Report released in September. According to the report, in 2019, the most recent year for which data was available, 6,261 veterans died by suicide, down 399 from 2018.

“The suicide rate has been very high for decades, and the VA numbers, according to their internal data, are 17 veterans per day, which equals 6,205 per year,” Lyle said. “Long ago, suicides of active and veterans eclipsed the true combat casualties in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The average number of veteran suicides per day in 2019 was 17.2. That’s a 4.5% increase from 16.4 in 2001. Over the same 18-year period, the average number of suicides per day among American adults rose 55.0%, from 81 in 2001 to 125.6 in 2019, according to a VA report. Of the average 17.2 veteran suicides per day in 2019, an estimated 10.4 per day were veterans who had not met with the Veterans Health Administration in 2018 or 2019.

“So that has been a problem for many, many years. Congress has tried to attack by funding heavily traditional treatment approaches, which the VA views primarily as a mental health issue,” he said. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out objectively so far, and I think that’s because suicide is not inherently a mental health issue. At the time of decision, it could be any number of things or a conglomeration of things that lead a veteran down this path.

Funding available to the Department of Veterans Affairs has grown steadily since fiscal year 2018, when it had $229.9 billion in total budgetary resources. According to federal spending figures, the department’s total budgetary resources for 2022 were $339.3 billion.

“The VA has heavily funded traditional treatments for mental health, i.e. pharmacological or psychological approaches, but 50% of veterans in the United States do not use or are not engaged with the Department of Mental Health. Veterans Affairs,” Lyle said. . “And in their last budget, they only included $497 million in suicide prevention awareness efforts. That’s a tenth of one percent of their biggest budget request this year, which is $301 billion.

President Donald Trump sign the bipartisan John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Enhancement Act of 2020. This act included funding for community organizations outside of the VA that have more interactions with veterans.

Lyle said the money for the program still hasn’t been released two years later and won’t be until later this year.

“It underscores the lack of urgency at the enterprise level of the VA,” he said.

The financing of the Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Grant Programwhich was included in the Hanno Act, is expected to be released in September or October, Lyle said.

2023 from the Department of Veterans Affairs budget request $497 million for suicide prevention will provide $55.8 million to S/Sgt. Parker Gordon Fox’s Suicide Prevention Grant Program for grants aimed at community-based suicide prevention efforts. According to the agency, the agency’s total budget request was $301.4 billion for fiscal year 2023, an increase of 13.3% over levels adopted for fiscal year 2022. Between 2001 and 2019 , the veteran population decreased by 23.1%, from 25.7 million in 2001 to 19.8 million in 2019, according to the VA’s annual report on veteran suicides.

Lyle said groups across the country are working to address the issue in different ways.

The Boulder Crest Foundation is a Virginia-based organization that operates a post-traumatic stress disorder assistance program for veterans and first responders. Another Florida-based group, K9s For Warriors, provides trained service dogs to military veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and military sexual trauma. Los Angeles-based Merging Vets and Players brings together veterans and pro athletes for workouts and time to talk about transitioning to life after the game and life after combat duty. Fox Sports NFL Insider Jay Glazer and former Green Beret and Seattle Seahawk Nate Boyer founded the nonprofit group in 2015. Lyle said veterans and professional athletes face similar issues after leaving the field or the service, including those who are injured.

“There are organizations that are tackling this problem in their own way and seeing success, but these aren’t necessarily traditional approaches that the VA says have enough scientific evidence behind them,” Lyle said. “We have to try everything we can because what has been used so far is not working.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs also has a reputational problem, which Lyle says may make some veterans less likely to use Veterans Affairs services.

“[Veterans] may be more willing to engage with a local organization that tries some of these non-traditional treatment approaches,” Lyle said.

the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.