Trump says he's 'marshaling every resource' to prevent veteran suicide in new plan

Abbie Bennett
June 17, 2020 - 10:13 am
VeteranSuicideCrisisLine

Photo by Zachary Hada/55th Wing Public Affairs

The president unveiled a report more than a year in the making aimed at preventing veteran suicide Wednesday, saying his administration is "marshaling every resource to stop the crisis of veteran suicide."

That report includes creating a national public health campaign, "safe storage" programs for gun owners, community partnerships and improved research efforts. 

President Donald Trump established the President's Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (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. 

"We're doing tremendous research and everything you can do," Trump said. "Ending the tragedy of veteran suicide demands bold action at every level of society. Twenty veterans and service members take their own lives every single day. The loss of our heroes breaks our hearts and pains our souls."

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. 

Trump said Karen Pence and the surgeon general will lead the awareness campaign. 

"They fought our battles overseas and now we must join them in winning this new battle at home," he said. Both the president and Pence emphasized the need for Americans to destigmatize mental health and suicide. 

"It will point the way for the rest of the country," Wilkie said of the report. "This is the beginning of one of the most important national discussions ... it is an effort to find a solution to a problem that does not discriminate among victims, poor, rich, people of all races and creeds." 

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 the report was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Veterans and advocates pushed for its release, especially given concerns that increasing veteran unemployment and homelessness because of the pandemic could lead to more suicide deaths. Some have criticized the effort for not providing a specific enough action plan or proposed legislation to address suicide.  

About 20 veterans die by suicide daily, according to VA data, which lawmakers and advocates have repeatedly called a "crisis." Those numbers have remained generally steady, or worsened, for years."

That data usually has a lag time of about two years, causing challenges in determining how effective efforts are at reaching veterans. One of the report's promises is quicker data turnaround. 

The task force's recommendations apply broadly to Americans, not only veterans, since suicide is among the top 10 causes of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The task force's main 2020 priorities include launching a national public health campaign in coming weeks, enhancing suicide prevention research, a grant program for community groups, getting all 50 states to sign on to a proclamation, set up an ambassador program, create an employer pledge and toolkit and more. 

"You'll see things happen that no one would ever think was possible," the president promised.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., issued a blistering statement minutes before the president's event was expected to begin calling the report "tepid" and "meek" and promising more thorough suicide prevention efforts and legislation from Congress. 

The public health campaign is expected to echo previous efforts such as national drunk driving campaigns, with the focus on dispelling misinformation or misunderstandings surrounding suicide and encouraging Americans to be more open about mental health and suicide. 

The task force recommendations include: 

  • Create and implement a national public health campaign for suicide prevention for veterans and all Americans;
  • Prioritize "suicide surveillance and research" focused on veterans;
  • Change the way research is conducted, including "improving the speed and accuracy with which research is translated into practice," improve data sharing and more;
  • Develop partnerships to increase capacity and effectiveness of programs and research;
  • Provide "comprehensive suicide prevention trainings across professions;"
  • Promote community groups already using evidence-based mental health and suicide prevention programs nationwide and create more partnerships between those programs and VA and veteran and military service organizations;
  • Increase programs focused on lethal means safety, including voluntary reduction of access to lethal means such as firearms by people in crisis with free or inexpensive storage options;
  • Develop a federal grant program to support and provide resources for community programs to prevent veteran suicide;
  • "Streamline access to ... suicide prevention programs by expanding a network of healthcare providers." 

Perhaps one of the most controversial parts of the plan is the effort to increase lethal means, or firearm, safety. Mental health advocates have worked for years to limit or delay veterans' access to firearms in crisis. Gun advocates, however, have resisted those efforts, arguing they could infringe on constitutional rights.

The plan does not call for new firearm restrictions, instead focusing on "education" and free or affordable methods to help secure weapons. Senior administration officials said those efforts will include partnerships with VSOs, sport shooting groups and law enforcement to ease concerns and reinforce that the campaigns are about safety, not removing veterans' weapons. 

The White House did not release information about the report to lawmakers on Capitol Hill until a few hours before the president's unveiling Wednesday. The plan did not include any major legislative efforts, but officials said it could serve as a guide for future legislation. 

The next steps for the task force in coming months include launching a suicide prevention survey for insight on veteran experiences accessing services and resources; building a resource map for services offered at state, local and national levels; work with governors to encourage states to participate in PREVENTS efforts; 

The task force is also planning an open technology challenge for coming weeks aimed at developing "a platform that will service as a resource of evidence-based mental health and suicide prevention solutions." 

Read the full report: 

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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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