Over the nearly two straight decades the U.S. has been at war, public awareness has grown around the unseen wounds of war. But the results in healing these invisible wounds have been mixed.
Despite countless new VA programs and efforts to address the issue and dramatic funding increases, why is the suicide rate among our veterans still so high? According to The New York Times, suicides among post-9/11 veterans are four times as high as combat deaths. Among post-Sept. 11 veterans between 18-years-old and 35-years-old, the rate is 2.5 times higher than that of all civilians. And suicide rates for post-9/11 veterans rose from “an average of 32.3 per 100,000 between 2005 and 2017 to 45.9 per 100,000 in 2018.”
How do we address such a massive crisis? We have to stop singularly correlating suicide with mental health and mental health with suicide.
For too long, the VA and others’ primary approach is to “counsel and prescribe” the issue of mental health. And the only way to “fix” the problem of suicide, or issues such as Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) or Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), has been to address them as mental health issues.
However, focusing on one issue often proves short-sighted without addressing the many other factors that encompass a veteran’s overall wellbeing.
Mental health is only a part of the veteran’s overall health and part of the holistic nature of the individual. The holistic care of veterans includes addressing factors like employment, family, recreation, volunteerism, health, finances, spirituality, purpose, and others to improve their overall wellbeing. For the veterans who are doing well and those that are struggling, focusing on the bigger picture holistically will inherently build resiliency.
The VA is a system of systems. The VA machine is large and impersonal by nature. The VA has programs to address many of the challenges a veteran may encounter. However, without a guide to shepherd veterans through the systems and build a personal relationship – to actually know and understand the veteran as a person – the veteran is unlikely to receive the holistic care they need and deserve.
This is why the VA must empower our communities through MISSION Act authorities to expand community care access. This will enable those who know veterans the best and have existing relationships with them — their neighbors in their community— to help holistically provide care to veterans.
Mental health care is a part of holistic care and cannot be treated in isolation from everything else that makes up a person’s wellbeing. The VA can assist in this care but is not the “solution” for every problem.
This means there has to be a revolutionary change in the way we think about VA services. The Secretary of the VA can lead the way by immediately taking the VA Office of Suicide Prevention out of the Mental Health office of the Veterans Health Administration and instead have it report directly to him. This will allow the Office of Suicide Prevention to work across the entire VA and utilize all available efforts and programs rather than be buried within a silo.
It is not the whole solution, but it’s a start.
• Darrell Owens is the Director of Government Relations for America’s Warrior Partnership and currently serves as an officer for the U.S. Army Reserve. Mission Roll Call is an initiative of America’s Warrior Partnership.