Trump plan to stem vet­eran sui­cides fo­cuses on aware­ness

Orlando Sentinel - - Nation & World - By Hope Yen

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump re­leased a long-awaited plan Wed­nes­day to ad­dress the per­sis­tently high num­ber of sui­cides by veter­ans, with ini­tia­tives in­clud­ing firearm safety, well­ness pro­grams at work­places, and new bar­ri­ers near rail­roads and bridges.

As part of the $53 mil­lion, two-year ef­fort, a pub­lic mes­sag­ing cam­paign start­ing in the com­ing weeks is in­tended to raise aware­ness about sui­cide at a time of in­creased so­cial dis­tanc­ing and iso­la­tion dur­ing a pan­demic.

The plan also awards grants to com­mu­nity pro­grams out­side the Depart­ment of Veter­ans Af­fairs, build­ing on Trump’s ex­pan­sion of the pri­vate-sec­tor Veter­ans Choice health pro­gram.

“My ad­min­is­tra­tion is mar­shal­ing ev­ery re­source to stop the cri­sis of veter­ans sui­cide and pro­tect our na­tion’s most treasured he­roes,” Trump said at a White House event. He said he looked for­ward “to big, big progress very, very fast.”

Trump es­tab­lished a fed­eral task force last year to de­velop a way to lower veter­ans’ sui­cides. About 20 veter­ans die by sui­cide each day, about 1.5 times higher than those who have not served in the mil­i­tary. The gov­ern­ment says about 14 of those 20 were not un­der VA care, point­ing to a need for im­proved out­reach.

It was un­clear, how­ever, how much of the plan could re­sult in im­me­di­ate con­crete ac­tion, es­pe­cially in a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion year. Much of the ef­fort will need con­gres­sional ac­tion as well as co­op­er­a­tion from gov­er­nors and lo­cal groups jug­gling pri­or­i­ties of pub­lic safety and health in a pan­demic.

Jeremy But­ler, the CEO of Iraq and Afghanista­n Veter­ans of Amer­ica, ap­plauded the ef­fort but said he was dis­ap­pointed by a lack of di­rect ac­tion to ad­dress root causes, such as fix­ing bar­ri­ers to ed­u­ca­tion and jobs, im­prov­ing hous­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and ex­pand­ing ac­cess to health care.

“All these are things are stres­sors that ex­ac­er­bate men­tal health con­di­tions and lead to a point of cri­sis,” he said.

Demo­cratic Rep. Mark Takano, who leads the House Veter­ans Af­fairs’ Com­mit­tee, said he will pro­pose leg­is­la­tion to ad­dress veter­ans’ men­tal health needs. Sens. Jerry Mo­ran, R-Kan., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., are plan­ning sep­a­rate bi­par­ti­san leg­is­la­tion.

“Tepid calls for more re­search, in­ter­a­gency co­or­di­na­tion and meek pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion cam­paigns won’t do enough to end this cri­sis,” Takano said.

White House of­fi­cials ex­pressed con­cern about an even greater risk of sui­cide due to eco­nomic strain and iso­la­tion stem­ming from so­cial dis­tanc­ing re­stric­tions dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

“We seek to reach ev­ery cor­ner of our na­tion, leav­ing no one be­hind,” ac­cord­ing to the 66-page plan, which was ini­tially set for re­lease in March.

Of­fi­cials say the pub­lic aware­ness cam­paign will be sim­i­lar in scope to those against drunken driv­ing and will fo­cus on dis­pelling myths such as that it is dan­ger­ous to talk openly about is­sues of men­tal health and sui­cide.

Among those lead­ing the ef­fort is Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence’s wife, Karen Pence, who said it was an op­por­tune time “be­cause we are all deal­ing with anx­i­ety.”

“It’s my goal to help take away the stigma of men­tal health,” Mrs. Pence said. “We are giv­ing them hope. We want them to know, and any­one who is con­sid­er­ing sui­cide, that there are peo­ple who want to help.”

The plan urges in­creased ed­u­ca­tion on gun safety, such as “vol­un­tary safe stor­age,” and coun­sel­ing and lim­it­ing ac­cess to pre­scrip­tion drugs if a vet­eran is seen at a higher risk of men­tal dis­tress. VA data sug­gest that lim­ited health care ac­cess, gun own­er­ship and opi­oid ad­dic­tion are risk fac­tors for sui­cide.

It also set a goal of get­ting em­ploy­ers rep­re­sent­ing 25% of the na­tional work­force to com­mit to pri­or­i­tiz­ing men­tal health and well­ness pro­grams in the work­place. So far, or­ga­ni­za­tions rep­re­sent­ing more than 6 mil­lion em­ploy­ees have signed a pledge to do so.

ALEX BRAN­DON/AP

Pres­i­dent Trump’s plan also awards grants to com­mu­nity pro­grams out­side the Depart­ment of Veter­ans Af­fairs.

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