By: COL. MICHAEL HUDSON and DR. KEITA M. FRANKLIN
FOR THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT
Veterans are our heroes; our protectors; our fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. And despite the enormous role they play in guaranteeing our collective freedoms, far too many slip through the cracks as they depart the Department of Defense and transition into the Veterans Administration.
This is unacceptable, and we owe it to our veterans to find solutions to address this injustice.
Our search for answers begins with data, which indicate that even if veterans do successfully navigate the transition to post-service care, many still fail to connect to the mental health care system either upon initial transition, or later in their civilian life.
According to statistics compiled by the VA, nearly 20 veterans die each day by suicide, at a rate that is one and a half times higher than the civilian suicide rate.
Of the 20 veterans that will die today, 14 will be unknown to the VA until they tragically become another statistic.
The problem is not getting easier. COVID-19 has added another dimension of difficulty for those veterans who were already struggling with the after-effects of their service, including the many psychological impacts of one or more combat or combat-support tours.
Now, individuals feel they must go it alone at a time of tremendous public health concerns and economic uncertainty.
We are already starting to see COVID-19′s impact. Calls to the Veteran Crisis Line have increased by the hundreds, and some have even estimated that for every 5% increase in the national unemployment rate, as many as 550 additional U.S. veterans could be lost to suicide annually. Compared to pre-COVID levels, 20,000 more veterans could suffer from substance-use disorders.
Wishful thinking, hand wringing or half measures are not the answer to this very real challenge. We must seriously commit to being there for our veterans, as the simple act of “checking in” and engaging them in a conversation can catalyze positive change.
If in those conversations individuals notice increased agitation, despondency or an escalation in alcohol or drug use, they should not dismiss those signs or write the behavior off as an isolated incident. Research shows that many people contemplating suicide exhibit these warning signs, It’s our shared responsibility to be watchful for these negative coping mechanisms.
Next, we need to know what to do once someone does ask for help. Thankfully, the Department of Veterans Affairs has a wealth of information available online.
There’s the Coaching into Care Program, which helps family members and friends navigate conversations about their concerns. There’s the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), and the Veteran Crisis Line (800-273-8255), which provide support and guidance to individuals at risk, plus their loved ones. Both are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
We must also be better aware of how someone’s behavior over time may change behind the scenes. We can do this by augmenting human observation with enhanced technology that is capable of highlighting worrisome patterns indicative of their silent struggle sooner, enabling organizations to provide veterans in need with the help they may be unable to bring themselves to ask for.
Suicide is preventable. We just need to see the behaviors and stressors sooner and enable focused outreach.
We must make this our primary mission. As they have pledged their lives to protect this nation, we must pledge, with more promise and dedication than ever before, to protect our strongest and bravest during our country’s continued fight against COVID-19 — and beyond.
Col. Michael Hudson, a resident of Burke, served in the Marine Corps for 30 years and is vice president at ClearForce. Dr. Keita M. Franklin, a former Department of Veteran Affairs and Department of Defense senior executive who served as the principal advisor on suicide prevention, is chief clinical officer at Loyal Source and a resident of Stafford.