(The Center Square) – More than 17 veterans die per day from suicide in the United States.
Mission Roll Call wants President Joe Biden and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to make the prevention of veteran suicides its top priority.
Mission Roll Call Executive Director Cole Lyle said change within the Veterans Health Administration, which is the largest integrated health care network in the United States, has been slow. That’s partly due to its size. The Veterans Health Administration has 1,255 health care facilities that serve 9 million enrolled veterans annually.
“It’s an enormous challenge to successfully implement changes or policies nationwide,” Lyle said in an interview with The Center Square. “Most local directors have veteran medical centers or integrated service networks have enormous flexibility to direct programs and budgets in a way that is within the Secretary’s priorities, which is why we’ve advocated to make it their No. 1 priority so that it would send a clear message to the local folks to be laser-focused on this issue of preventing veteran suicide.”
Lyle, a Marine who served in Afghanistan, later served as an adviser to senior leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs and on veteran policy in the U.S. Senate before heading up Mission Roll Call, a veteran advocacy group. Mission Roll Call, based in Georgia, aims to be “a movement that gives every veteran a voice on the issues that are most important to them,” according to its website.
More U.S. veterans die by suicide each year than non-veterans per capita. The suicide rate for veterans in 2019 was 52.3% higher than non-veterans, according to the 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention annual report issued in September. In 2019, the most recent year for which data was available, 6,261 veterans died by suicide, 399 fewer than in 2018, according to the report.
“The suicide rate has been very high for decades and VA’s numbers, according to their internal data, is 17 veterans per day, which equates to 6,205 a year,” Lyle said. “A long time ago, active-duty and veteran suicides eclipsed actual combat causalities in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The average number of veteran suicides per day in 2019 was 17.2. That’s a 4.5% increase from 16.4 in 2001. During the same 18-year period, the average number of suicides per day among U.S. adults rose 55.0%, from 81 in 2001 to 125.6 in 2019, according to a VA report. Among the average 17.2 veteran suicides per day in 2019, an estimated 10.4 per day were veterans who had not had an encounter with the Veterans Health Administration in 2018 or 2019.
“So this has been an issue for many, many years. Congress has tried to attack by funding heavily traditional approaches to treatment, which the VA views as primarily a mental health problem,” he said. “Unfortunately, that has not objectively worked to this point and I think it is because suicide is not inherently a mental health problem. At the moment of decision, it could be any number of things or a conglomeration of things that lead a veteran down that path.”
The funding available to the Department of Veterans Affairs has increased steadily since fiscal year 2018, when it had $229.9 billion in total budget resources. The department’s total budget resources for 2022 were $339.3 billion, according to federal spending figures.
“The VA has robustly funded traditional treatments for mental health, i.e. pharmacological or psychological approaches to this, but 50% of the veterans in the United States don’t use or aren’t engaged with the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Lyle said. “And in their most recent budget, they only included $497 million into suicide prevention outreach efforts. That is one-tenth of one percent their largest budget request in history, this year, which is $301 billion.”
President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act in 2020. That act included funding for community organizations outside of the VA that have more interactions with veterans.
Lyle said that two years later, money from the program still hasn’t been released and won’t be until later this year.
“It underscores the lack of urgency at the enterprise level of the VA,” he said.