Veteran group calls for White House to release delayed suicide prevention plan

Abbie Bennett
June 09, 2020 - 2:14 pm
VeteranSuicideCrisisLine

Photo by Zachary Hada/55th Wing Public Affairs

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America are calling on a presidential task force to release its national suicide prevention plan, particularly in light of a spike in mental health needs during the pandemic. 

President Donald Trump established the PREVENTS Task Force on March 5 last year with the goal of creating an interagency task force to create a national "roadmap" for mental health and suicide prevention. 

The task force was led by Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and leaders of the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. The task force was expected to work with public and private sector leaders to come up with ways to address mental health and suicide on both national and local levels. 

That task force had a self-imposed deadline of March 5, 2020, to complete the report, a legislative proposal for a new grant program and a national research strategy, according to the president's executive order.

But Congressional and VA staff told Connecting Vets months ago that report would be delayed after the COVID-19 outbreak. Then, VA staff with knowledge of the report told Connecting Vets it likely could be released on Memorial Day. Last week, Wilkie told lawmakers during his testimony before House Appropriations that the plan would be released June 14. 

He said he would be "inaugurating our PREVENTS task force recommendations on mental health and suicide prevention on June 14," adding that the plan also will include details for how to combat veteran homelessness and addiction. 

"I think we'll be the first large healthcare organization to invoke a national conversation on mental health and how we treat it," Wilkie told House Appropriators May 28. 

Now that June 14 date seems less certain, and advocates are urging the report's release as concerns grow about the effects the pandemic may have on mental health for Americans, including veterans.

About 20 veterans die by suicide daily, according to VA data.

Advocates worry that increasing veteran unemployment and homelessness could lead to more suicide deaths. 

IAVA leaders called the report, and the subsequent policy changes it could affect, "overdue" in light of the crisis.

“The tragedy of veteran and military suicide is a problem that is not getting better despite years of attention,” said Jeremy Butler, IAVA. “In fact, it is likely that the ongoing and pervasive effects of the coronavirus pandemic are only exacerbating an already tragic situation. We are seeing an exponential increase in the stressors that can lead to the onset and worsening of mental health conditions such as job loss, homelessness and compounding medical conditions. While it is easy to use the pandemic as an excuse to delay action, the reality is that our veterans -- and the country as a whole -- need increased access to and support from mental health care professionals now more than ever.”

While awaiting the report, IAVA launched a "Quick Reaction Force" consolidated care program aimed at providing veterans free, anonymous, timely help. 

IAVA is also urging Congress to pass a major omnibus veteran mental health bill, the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act. The top Veterans Affairs lawmaker in the Senate, Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, pledged to work with his colleagues and the White House to see the bill passed. 

VA's $253 billion 2021 budget request includes $53.4 million for PREVENTS efforts. 

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If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go to veteranscrisisline.net.

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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