Veteran Suicide a Major Target for Trump Administration, and Florida’sVern Buchanan

By KEVIN DERBY Sunshine State News

The Trump administration and a Florida congressman continue to work together to crack down on veteran suicide. 

Back in March, President Donald Trump announced his “President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) Initiative” including executive orders creating a task force to “develop a comprehensive public health radmap for helping veterans pursue an improved quality of life and ending the national tragedy of veteran suicide” including working with state and local governments, the private sector and non profits to create a roadmap to ensure a “national and local ecosystem that cultivates active engagement with each veteran, rather than a passive system wherein the onus for engagement is placed on veterans.”

“We will not rest until all of America’s great veterans receive the care they’ve earned through their incredible service and sacrifice to our country,” Trump said. 

The White House showcased statistics showing the suicide rates among veterans jumped 26 percent from 2005 to 2016 with an average of 20 a day. “Veterans often endure traumatic experiences—either emotional or physical—which make them susceptible to mental health issues,” the White House noted, pointing to data showing veterans are one and a half times more likely to commit suicide than civilians.  

From his perch on the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., applauded the Trump administration’s efforts but called for more funds for the VA’s national Suicide Prevention Program–something Trump is doing in his next budget proposal, adding an extra $70 million to help the problem. 

Buchanan wrote Trump on the matter back in March.  

“As you work to submit your Fiscal Year 2020 budget request to Congress in the upcoming weeks, I hope you will dedicate more resources for suicide prevention efforts within the Depts. of Defense and Veterans Affairs (VA),” Buchanan wrote Trump. “There has been an alarming increase in suicide among our nation’s veterans and members of the armed forces across the nation. Tragically, this heartbreaking trend has affected every corner of our military, with the Marine Corps and Navy experiencing decades-high suicide rates, and suicides among our Special Operations units tripling in the past year alone. Overall, the U.S. military experienced the highest number of suicides among active-duty personnel in at least six years.

“As you are undoubtedly aware, an astonishing 20 veterans and active-duty service members commit suicide every day,” Buchanan added. “These account for 18 percent of all suicides nationwide. Among veterans younger than 35, the number of suicides has increased dramatically in recent years. According to a recent survey among Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America members, an overwhelming majority said that that the country as a whole has not made much progress in solving one of the top challenges affecting veterans — suicide. Even worse, 84 percent of these veterans said they don’t believe most veterans are receiving the mental health care they need, while 75 percent said they are actively seeking that care.

“These statistics are not only heartbreaking; they are downright inexcusable. And while I commend you for taking action to improve mental health resources for veterans transitioning from active-duty to civilian life, these numbers clearly indicate that much more needs to be done,” Buchanan continued. “Last December, I was extremely disturbed to learn that the VA failed to spend millions of dollars allocated for suicide prevention efforts. In fact, according to a government watchdog group, the agency somehow only managed to spend less than 1 percent of the total funding allocated for this purpose.  Of the 20 veterans who commit suicide on a daily basis, it is estimated that 14 of those individuals have had little or no contact with the VA in the months preceding their death. This demonstrates that the VA must dramatically improve its outreach to veterans who are in need of the department’s mental health services.

“At a time when a veteran commits suicide every 72 minutes in the United States and suicide rates among active-duty service members continue to skyrocket, we need to do everything in our power to combat this tragic epidemic. Dedicating more resources for suicide prevention efforts is a common sense way to help fight back against this scourge,” Buchanan wrote in conclusion. “And while the VA’s national Suicide Prevention Program was allocated $41 million in FY18, I am calling for a significant increase in this year’s budget as well as more funding at the Dept. of Defense.  Thank you for your commitment and service to our veterans and service members. I look forward to your prompt response on this important matter.”

Buchanan heard back from the administration, including the U.S. Defense and Veterans Affairs Departments, this week and the Florida Republican backed Trump’s proposal of adding an extra $70 million to help with suicide prevention. 

David Carroll, the director of the VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, reached out to Buchanan on the matter.  

“Suicide prevention is the top clinical priority for VA,” Carroll insisted. “We must approach this matter compassionately and clinically and discard the practices of the past that failed to address this national tragedy.

“VA’s public health approach means doing things differently than we have in the past,” Carroll added.   

Buchanan also heard from U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense James Stewart who noted the Pentagon is “provide seamless access to mental health care, and suicide prevention resources for transitioning service members during the year following discharge, separation, or retirement.”

For his part, Buchanan welcomed the Trump administration’s efforts on the matter. 

“It is unacceptable that there have been tragic shortcomings by the VA to get veterans the treatment they need and deserve. The administration needs to follow through with meaningful action to support our nation’s veterans,” Buchanan said on Wednesday. 

“The suicide rate among veterans is about twice that of the general population, and has been rising among younger veterans who served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to press reports, last year the VA failed to spend 99 percent of the money it was allocated for suicide prevention outreach,” Buchanan’s office noted on Wednesday. “According to the VA, 20 veterans commit suicide every day, accounting for 18 percent of all U.S. suicides. Florida has the third-highest number of veterans in the country, with 1.5 million.”