Program to Prevent Suicide by Veterans Earns Bipartisan Support

The New York Times

Published Sept. 20, 2019 Updated Sept. 24, 2019

PHOENIX — Gloribel Ramos sunk slightly under the weight of her 32-pound body armor and gingerly gripped a plastic facsimile of an M4 rifle as she prepared to watch a video of a roadside bomb detonated in Iraq, all so she could better understand the experience of war and its impact on people who have fought in one.

Along with about three dozen other people gathered here, she had joined an effort to stem veteran suicide, one heavily reliant on civilians in the community willing to take the time to learn the warning signs rather than depend only on the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has for years failed on its own to turn the tide of veteran suicides.

The program, called Be Connected, represents a rare — and quiet — spot of bipartisan cooperation between congressional Democrats, who are highly critical of so much of the president’s policy, and the Trump administration, which has moved aggressively to try to turn around the intransigent veteran suicide rate.

“We are working well with them,” said Representative Mark Takano, Democrat of California and the chairman of the Committee On Veterans’ Affairs, referring to the department. He specifically cited the Be Connected program, which focuses on reaching veterans at risk for suicide, whether they live on a Native American reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon or in this bustling city.

Veterans died by suicide at roughly one and a half times the rate of the rest of the American population in 2017, according to data released Friday by the Department of Veterans Affairs. More than 6,000 veterans took their own lives each year between 2008 and 2017, and roughly 20 a day since 2014, according to the statistics.

There has been increasing awareness that suicidal veterans often are best reached through members of their own community, and not the federal government. Some of those veterans who may need help do not seek Department of Veterans Affairs services, and some suicides stem from issues not related to military service at all.

In March, President Trump issued an executive order to reduce the suicide rate by assigning other federal agencies — like the Agriculture Department in rural areas — to get involved, and enlisted local governments, veterans groups and social service organizations to pitch in.

The approach is a shift for an agency that for years attacked the problem alone, and it has impressed even the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Veteran Affairs, who has been relentlessly critical of the department, especially over the issue of veteran suicide.

The program, called Be Connected, is based on one that worked with Arizona National Guard members who were dying by suicide at increasingly high rates over the last decade, and supported by a 2015 law designed to improve veteran’s mental health. It is operated by the Arizona Coalition for Military Families, a statewide public-private partnership that includes the Arizona governors office, the Arizona Department of Veterans Services, the federal veterans department and other partners. It is funded by a combination of federal, state, foundation and corporate sources.

There were roughly a dozen National Guard deaths in 2010 in Arizona; that fell to zero a year after the program began, said Thomas Winkel, director of the Arizona Coalition for Military Families, the backbone of the consortium.

The philosophy, he said, is to intervene on “the myriad issues that service members and their families struggle with” before they “lead to crisis.” Two years ago, the veterans department became an official partner in the consortium, which has since received 10,000 calls.

Members of the Arizona National Guard in Phoenix last year. There were roughly a dozen National Guard deaths in 2010 in Arizona; that fell to zero a year after the program began.

By identifying veterans who have the kinds of struggles that often lead to suicide, the program can connect them with the services they need while they still can be helped, like therapy, health care or a pet sitter to take care of their animals as they seek substance abuse treatment.

 “It’s not just about health issues,” said Wanda Wright, the director of the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services. “It’s about all the determinants in your life that are barriers to services.”

The person to identify them comes from the community, like Ms. Ramos. They could be a doctor or nurse, or a civilian “navigator” such as a homeowner who spent the last few days chatting with his house painter, one who might happen to be a deeply troubled veteran. Those who sign up for navigator training might work for a state social service agency or a health care provider. But they might be just a family member of a veteran, or anyone else interested in helping veterans.

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