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A couple of weeks ago, I learned that a friend of mine in the National Guard committed suicide.
He was a great Soldier and a great father. He’s not a statistic — he’s a person.
But he joins a tragic group of service members who have taken their lives since September 11th, 2001.
30,177 service members have died by suicide since September 11th.
That’s quadruple the number of deaths due to military operations in the same period.
I’ve been in the military for 18 years. He’s not the first one of my friends I’ve lost to suicide. And while suicide remains a major problem for all of our military components, the National Guard has the highest rate.
Over the years, I can’t tell you how many suicide prevention PowerPoint briefings I’ve been required to sit through with the rest of the platoon. It’s check-the-box training that we all receive.
The numbers speak for themselves: Slideshow training isn’t enough.
In North Carolina, we’ve got over 700,000 veterans, so this hits us hard. The VA estimates that as many as 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In our town halls across the state, it comes up repeatedly. Suicide prevention — and mental health services more generally — for our service members deserves to be part of any agenda focused on solving problems in our state.
Here are some steps we should take:
- Mandate the VA develop and implement suicide prevention training that ditches the PowerPoint approach and takes a skills-based approach.
Too often, the military approaches suicide prevention the same way it approaches teaching new recruits about their chain of command: They show some slides and ask if anyone has any questions. Instead, we should approach it the same way we approach learning how to treat a casualty or learning to assemble your rifle: it’s a skill you’re expected to practice.
With suicide prevention, spotting indicators among your buddies, knowing how to talk to them, and knowing what steps to take when those indicators persist are all skills that need training — not a simple slideshow that lets command check the box.
This will be harder. It will take more time on the training schedule. But when it comes to suicide prevention we are currently operating in a state of failure and we need to acknowledge that and let it motivate us to build an effective solution.
2. Invest in high-quality tele-health
Only half of our veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who need mental health service actually get it. More of them would seek care if it were made easier. Once a service member realizes they may need help, they should be able to quickly and easily schedule a phone or digital meeting with a Suicide Prevention Counselor at the VA.
3. Increase the number of Suicide Prevention Coordinators at the VA
The Government Accountability Office recently found that the VA simply doesn’t know how heavy the workload is and doesn’t have a clear sense of what staffing changes need to be made to meet the demand.
This aligns with a broad-based understaffing at the VA, which was recently reported to have approximately 50,000 staff vacancies. This is an issue of underfunding and every politician that gives lip service to supporting the troops must prioritize their health when veterans return home.
4. Support medical cannabis
I support a transition from our current criminal approach to cannabis to a legalized and regulatory approach.
Right now in the General Assembly there is a bill to consider taking the small (and overdue) step of allowing cannabis for medicinal purposes.
That the bill is making progress is a surprise, given that the majority party has resisted any movement in this direction for years. In committee, however, they heard very compelling testimony from former military service members about how access to medical cannabis (supplied by other states) had profoundly positive effects on their PTSD.
As I wrote at the time:
We should take their testimony seriously and — at a minimum — allow for the medicinal use of cannabis.
5. Address veteran homelessness by fully funding Housing Choice Vouchers
This is addressed more broadly in our section on affordable housing, but Housing Choice Vouchers — formerly known as Section 8 vouchers — are the main way we assist very low income individuals in obtaining housing. But we dramatically underfund the program. If we fully funded the program, it would significantly reduce homelessness and previous expansions have been particularly effective at reducing veteran homelessness.
The connection between mental health and homelessness is direct. Before you can provide sustained and effective mental health treatment, you have to provide housing security. That’s how we take people out of “survival mode” and create the possibility for effective treatment, but it’s also how we solve logistical problems associated with providing treatment, like case workers knowing where they can meet with their clients.
6. No needless wars
The best way to help disabled veterans is to stop creating more of them. Our service members assume an obligation to defend our nation; we should assume an obligation to only send them into battle when it is absolutely necessary. On that count, we’ve failed them. We’ve fought wars of choice that went very poorly. Let those lessons be permanently learned so we never make that mistake again.
Just to be candid — these aren’t all the answers. No one has all the answers on this. But there are some pretty important things we aren’t doing that would make a real difference — and they don’t involve a new task force or new red tape. We need a bottom-up approach that starts with the service member and imagines what an effective solution would look like from that perspective.