On July 7, the Department of Veterans Affairs released the results of a large-scale study of veteran suicide rates. The analysis, which examined the records of more than 55 million veterans from 1979 to 2014, is the most comprehensive to date. The results showed that in 2014, an average of 20 veterans a day died from suicide*, making the risk of suicide 21% greater for veterans than the general population.
The statistics themselves are at times surprising and always alarming. For example, 65% of all veterans who died from suicide in 2014 were 50 years of age or older. Specific numbers aside, it’s clear that veterans are more susceptible to suicide than civilians. These results are unacceptable, and should be a concern for all Americans. Even before this report came out, I spoke with several members about the issue and how the Elks can do more to help.
Some Good News
There is news of some progress though. The use of VA services is protective against suicide, and the VA is expanding access to and the amount of those services available. They are increasing access to same-day appointments for veterans with urgent mental health needs. They’ve hired 60 new crisis intervention responders to work the Veterans Crisis Line, and they’re increasing online and over the phone mental health care opportunities to reach veterans in underserved areas. They’re being proactive and reaching out to veterans with the greatest risk.
Some of this is because of a sustained advocacy campaign by the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to pass the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act.
How Can the Elks Help?
Though the Welcome Home program doesn’t mention it directly, it does play a role in assisting veterans in need of mental health services. Every veteran who receives emergency assistance from the Elks is also working closely with a VA social worker and enrolled in a comprehensive treatment plan that includes access to extensive mental health care. (View these videos to hear the experiences of veterans in this treatment program.)
Many of our VAVS Representatives hold events for veterans receiving treatment for mental health issues, and a few Lodges specifically address this issue by using their Lodge Grants to hold veterans support groups. Our Adopt-a-Veteran program is targeted at reaching out to veterans who lack support. Studies show that increased social ties decrease the risk of suicide.
The ENVSC also works closely with the group Make the Connection help them publicize their many resources, promote the Veterans Crisis Line, and reach out to veterans. Make the Connection staff is always at our conventions to share information, and we spread the word about their events and programs in our newsletters and on social media.
We also publicize the work of other programs that are helping. The relatively new organization Campaign to Change Direction is working to reduce the stigma of mental health, and encourage everyone to focus on the importance of emotional well-being in addition to physical well-being. The organization Give an Hour provides free mental health services to veterans and military members and their families. They are always looking for licensed mental health professionals to volunteer their time.
To ensure that we are doing our part, the ENVSC will increase its promotion of resources like these. You can do your part by sharing that information too, and by continuing to serve veterans in your community, and inviting them into the Elks family.
Together, we can and should do more to help keep our veterans safe once they return home.
*Many media outlets and organizations cite an estimate of 22 a day, which is linked to the results of an older study, which actually produced the range of 18 to 22 veterans a day. The Washington Post has a good in-depth analysis of this 22 a day number and where it comes from.