Carol Rasor-Cordero vividly remembers struggling to explain the problem of veterans suicide to several friends after her son Joseph, a Marine veteran, took his own life in 2017.
“At the funeral, I told them the number is 20 a day, and they told me they never knew the problem was that size,” she said. “That’s because no one likes to hear about suicide and no one wants to talk about it. We need to get past these stigmas.”
The veterans suicide rate that has remained consistent over the last decade despite numerous large-scale Veterans Affairs programs aimed at finding solutions. According to department records, more veterans died by suicide from 2005 and 2017 (nearly 79,000) than the total number of U.S. troops who died in 30 years of war in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan (about 65,000).
But advocates say even as that number of losses grow, public awareness of the problem hasn’t. Many report that individuals outside the veterans community are shocked by the 20-a-day statistic, even though it has been referenced frequently and consistently by military leaders, health experts and the last two presidents.
“I still talk to people who never heard that 20 veterans die by suicide each day,” said Danica Thomas, whose Army veteran husband, Allen, suffered from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder and died by suicide in 2013. “It’s a shock to them that the problem is that large.”
So for Thomas and Rasor-Cordero, the recent White House announcement of a new nationwide awareness campaign on veterans suicide prevention and intervention represents a new — and potentially lifesaving — opportunity to start an overdue public conversation on the issue.
But they are also anxious to make sure that discussion goes further than just more talk.
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“Right now, all the work I’m seeing on this is reactive in nature, not proactive,” said Rasor-Cordero, a former Florida law enforcement official turned veterans volunteer. “I appreciate any efforts, but we need to go further.”
In the last month, the push for new solutions has ramped up again, this time spurred by the White House’s year-long interagency review into veterans suicide prevention efforts, lawmakers and veterans groups have echoed that sentiment.
The question is whether the new efforts will produce better results than past ones.
Awareness versus action
The President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) was touted by President Donald Trump as the first comprehensive federal approach to ending the public health threat of veterans suicide.
Officials have promised more federal coordination with community providers on veterans outreach projects, a public awareness campaign (led by second lady Karen Pence) on mental health issues, and a host of other steps to help draw down that 20-a-day statistic.
Last week, that work began with the unveiling of a new web site asking Americans to take a pledge committing to “increasing awareness of mental health challenges and suicide prevention practices to reduce suicide for all Americans.”
But the response thus far has met mixed response in the veterans community, with critics saying the results amount to incremental improvements that took more than a year to compile.
“Tepid calls for more research, interagency coordination, and meek public education campaigns won’t do enough to end this crisis,” House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., wrote in response to the report unveiling last month. “We have much more substantial work to do to prevent veteran suicide and ultimately help save veterans’ lives.”
His committee began its own response in recent days, with the unveiling of two new suicide prevention bills, part of a series of upcoming legislation designed to provide a more aggressive approach to the problem.
The work builds off the Veterans’ Acute Crisis Care For Emergent Suicide Symptoms (ACCESS) Act unveiled by Takano earlier this year. The bill calls for free mental health care for any veterans in crisis, regardless where they receive it.
The two more recent bills would establish new standards for mental health care providers who receive community care funding, and a pilot program to implement the Zero Suicide Initiative at several VA medical centers.
“VA as a huge health care system does a lot of fine prevention work and mental health care,” said Dr. Heather Kelly, a licensed psychologist and professional staff member for the committee. And yet, the numbers of death to suicide still aren’t going down.”
“We have to constantly be looking for ways to do better. And as a committee, we need to make those things happen.”
Myth: If someone has either experienced suicidal thoughts or attempted to take their own life, they’ll always be suicidal.
— WeArePREVENTS (@WeArePREVENTS) July 15, 2020
Starting the conversation
The new legislative push is expected to have broad bipartisan support, although the issue of suicide prevention has devolved into partisan bickering in recent years. Takano and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie have sparred publicly in the past over efforts to open more mental health intervention for struggling veterans.
Officials said they don’t see the new congressional measures as standing at odds with the new presidential road map. But the separate efforts do have different key focuses: the House effort is geared towards bettering federal intervention, while the White House effort is centered around the idea of suicide as problem for the entire American public.
Kim Ruocco, vice president of suicide prevention at the Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors, said both efforts will have to come together to provide a full solution to the problem.
“You can’t only talk about curing cancer at a cancer clinic,” she said. “We need to start approaching suicide as a whole of public health issue. We need to incorporate what we know with a shift on how we talk about mental health.”
Rasor-Cordero said she wants to see more federal investment in local prevention programs, a key promise of the president’s new campaign. Danica Thomas, who works with the veterans advocacy group the Independence Fund, said she wants a national push to increase peer-to-peer counseling.
“Veterans still feel nervous to express what they’re feeling to others,” Thomas said. “They don’t realize the veteran next to them is struggling with those feelings too.
“All these efforts have to find a way to reach veterans where they’re at, not just reach out and hope they come get help.”
In the PREVENTS roll out last month, task force executive director Barbara Van Dahlen said among the first messages that the campaign will focus on is the broader idea that suicide is preventable, fighting the myth that little can be done to combat the problem.
If that idea can take hold in public consciousness, she argued, it will open opportunities for the rest of the veterans prevention efforts, and hopefully start reducing the number of suicides in years to come.
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
About Leo Shane III
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.