The tragic news that two Arkansas Army National Guard members took their own lives in the same January week shows the gravity of the mental distress some members of the military live with. Just as troubling is the extent we’ve seen service members and veterans struggling with these invisible battles in the Natural State already in 2020, where we now know there have been four cases of suicide involving current or former service members.
The Annual Suicide Report released by the Department of Defense (DoD) four months ago shows an increase in suicide among active-duty personnel in 2018. The National Guard experienced the highest rate of suicides among active duty and reserve members. Suicide prevention has become a priority at DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in recent years.
From Fiscal Year 2010 to 2020, the mental health and suicide prevention budget at the VA increased by 83 percent. During that same period, the suicide prevention outreach budget alone increased by 233 percent. Despite the $222 million in funding for suicide prevention, the VA estimates that around 20 veterans commit suicide each day. That number has unfortunately remained roughly unchanged even with this dramatic infusion of resources.
Our approach to reversing this trend is still falling tragically short. The VA estimates of the 20 veterans who commit suicide daily, only six are receiving healthcare services from the department. In order to reach more at-risk veterans, we need a new plan to utilize the expertise and successful programs that exist outside of the VA. There are more than 50,000 organizations that provide suicide prevention services for veterans. Allowing the VA to tap into this network is a commonsense approach to ensuring improvements that have the potential to make a difference.
That’s why I joined Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) to introduce the IMPROVE Well-being for Veterans Act. This legislation would create a VA grant program to leverage veteran-serving non-profits and other community networks and create a common tool to measure the effectiveness of programs in order to reduce veteran suicides and save lives. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has called this legislation “key” to unlocking the veteran suicide crisis.
Thankfully, it’s one step closer to helping veterans. Under the leadership of Senate VA Committee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-KS), the committee adopted this plan as a provision in a comprehensive bill that expands veterans’ access to mental health services. The bill was passed unanimously in committee, demonstrating the urgency to find new and innovative ways to combat this crisis.
I am hopeful that coordinating and sharing information between the VA and veteran-serving organizations will result in increased support and resources for at-risk veterans, especially those who are currently outside of the VA’s reach, and potentially save lives.
Following passage of the Senate bill, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Phil Roe, M.D. (R-TN) expressed his backing for my provision relating to suicide prevention efforts. I appreciate his support and look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate and the House to advance this legislation so we can turn the tide in this crisis and help veterans in Arkansas and across the country find the hope and care they need.