Let’s find a better way to stop veteran suicides


More than 100,000 veterans have died by suicide since 9/11.

If our nation really wants to address the veteran suicide crisis, we’ll need to do much more than pass this legislation.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie recently published an op-ed praising Congress for bipartisan support of the Improve Well-Being for Veterans Act. The bill aims to push resources into nonprofit organizations to reach the 60% to 70% of veterans outside of VA care who are at risk of dying by suicide. “Like most good ideas, this legislation is elegant in its simplicity,” he writes. But the simplicity of this bill is why it won’t work. If passed, it will waste taxpayer dollars, and it won’t save lives.

The bill will create a free-for-all for the more than 38,000 veteran-serving nonprofit organizations that are grasping for a piece of the resource pie. The bill doesn’t require that these services prove they are effective in reducing suicide risk or actual suicides.

In the bill, “risk of suicide” is so broadly defined that it would include every veteran who may be going through a “stressful life event.” This would expand the scope of services to nearly 19.2 million veterans and tens of millions of their family members.

Providers would not be required to conduct a suicide-risk screening at any time. There will be no way to tell if services are really being used to help veterans at the imminent risk of taking their own lives.

The bill does not require providers to develop a safety plan for veterans at higher risk for suicide. To enact legislation without requiring service providers to help suicidal veterans through proper crisis response planning is dangerous.

There is no requirement that grant recipients use industry-accepted suicide risk assessment tools or standardized well-being measures. All effective suicide interventions begin with a scientifically validated suicide risk assessment administered by a qualified professional.

The bill merely requires that process measurements, such as the number of grant recipients, are reported. Actual outcomes such as client suicide risk reductions and well-being increases over time are critical for determining the effectiveness of programs.

In short, nothing suggests this bill will achieve different results than we’ve seen over the past two decades — resulting in as many as 60,000 more veterans dying by their own hands in the next 10 years.

Our team at Stop Soldier Suicide has been working with several Senate staff members on the companion bill, S. 1906, to help ensure this bill and the associated resources, if implemented, drive real change.

We recognize that Congress often avoids being overly prescriptive, so as to give agencies the flexibility to execute within their discretion. However, here are a few of the scattershot ways these funds could be used under the current proposal:

  • To offer “temporary cash assistance” to “any other individual who lives with the veteran.”
  • “Childcare” for “an extended family member [of the veteran].”
  • “Educational assistance” for a “sibling [of the veteran].”

It’s beyond me how anyone thinks these provisions will reduce veteran suicide in a tangible way.

The veteran suicide crisis is infinitely complex; it’s baffling that legislators are so ready to embrace the idea that there is a simple solution.

This bill isn’t the only false hope lurking on the horizon either. Last Tuesday, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren unveiled her plan to cut veteran suicide rates in half within her first term. To achieve this, her website proposes: “We should conduct research targeting subgroups of veterans who may be at higher risk of suicide, and evaluate the efficacy of suicide prevention pilot programs and invest in those that make a meaningful difference.”

The Massachusetts senator further espouses firearm waiting periods and passage of an extreme risk (i.e., “red flag”) law to reduce veteran suicides by gun.

Warren’s plan shares the same fundamental infirmity as the proposed legislation at issue: it will remain largely unrealizable without data-driven strategies with measurable outcomes directly linked to suicide-risk reductions.

Yes, it is absolutely right to put focus and funding behind turning the tide on the veteran suicide crisis. But to be effective, the funds must have guardrails that protect them from being used poorly.

I urge Congress to tighten the language on this draft legislation to ensure that all grant recipients:

  • Deliver evidence-based suicide prevention or suicide risk reduction services.
  • Conduct suicide risk assessments during the intake process.
  • Develop and monitor safety plans for any high-risk veteran receiving services.
  • Target resources to locations and subpopulations with the highest suicide rates.
  • Produce meaningful and measurable outcomes demonstrating effectiveness.
  • Ensure funding/services provided to family members directly contributes to the reduction of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in veterans at risk of taking their own lives.

Those paying the price for their service and sacrifice deserve our best, even when it is not politically expedient. We should have the courage and conviction to give it to them.

Chris Ford is CEO of Stop Soldier Suicide and 20-year Air Force veteran. If you’re a veteran in crisis or know one, please call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1) or send a text message to 838255.

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