The holidays are typically a time of hope and celebration, and as we look to close out 2020, we still have reasons to be hopeful. We have proven our ability to adapt to a very challenging environment and have found ways to stay connected. As if on cue, the service member, veteran, and family (SMVF) community has responded to many calls to action over the past year and has gone out of its way to serve despite COVID restrictions. Thank you for all you have done for your community and fellow veterans.
As we battle against the coronavirus, we still face another epidemic: veteran suicide. Even though September is National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month, this month I want to highlight this epidemic and ways you can serve each other as we approach the holiday season.
Governor Northam reminded us in his keynote address on Veterans Day that over 17 veterans take their own lives every day in the United States. This is an astounding number and, most notably, includes both men and women in their 20s and 30s all the way to Vietnam veterans in their 60s and 70s.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently released its 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report (it uses 2018 data). While the rate of veteran suicide in Virginia is below the national veteran suicide rate, every veteran lost to suicide is a tragedy.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased isolation, loneliness, depression, substance abuse, job loss and unemployment, financial stress, and even homelessness for Virginians. Now that the end of year holiday season is upon us, isolation, depression, and loneliness may be exacerbated. We are going to have to double-down on our suicide prevention efforts.
You can be part of the fight against veteran suicide within your own networks by increasing identification of and outreach to the SMVF community. Does your program or organization track the number of contacts with SMVF? Is your employer open to training staff in military culture, which can help build understanding and rapport between civilian and military-connected individuals and enhance outreach and services? Can you provide information on VDVS services to SMVF in your networks? All of this will help us reach our veterans, military-connected friends, neighbors, and loved ones, so they have easy access to VA, state and community resources before stressful situations worsen to a crisis.
Here at VDVS, staff from our Virginia Veteran and Family Support (VVFS) program work to connect SMVF to behavioral health, rehabilitative, and supportive services. We provide peer and family support and facilitate access to VA and/or community behavioral health providers for counseling and crisis services. VDVS teammates also provide military culture and resource training to community groups and services providers. This holiday season please consider referring SMVF in your networks to VDVS and/or inquiring how the team can collaborate to support your organization’s outreach and services.
Another way we have tried to tackle this epidemic is through a public-health approach. In 2018, we partnered with the VA and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to start the Richmond Mayor’s and Governor’s Challenge Teams to Prevent Suicide among SMVF. Both teams unite cross-sector partners (behavioral health, hospitals, social services, employers, Veterans Service Organizations, etc.) to enhance community-based suicide prevention efforts for military-connected Virginians. In doing so, we have raised awareness and improved our screening and identification efforts, but we want to do more.
I know many of you will be making New Year’s resolutions for 2021. I hope you will join me in adding a resolution to do all that you can to help reduce and end this epidemic of veteran suicide in the coming year. Together, we can make a difference. If you are in crisis or concerned about someone else, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 (Veterans press 1 for the Veterans Crisis Line) for support 24 hours a day.
Happy Holidays to you and your families from all of us here at VDVS. I invite you to watch our holiday video below.
It continues to be a privilege for our team to serve those who served. As always, we welcome your feedback and ideas on how we can serve you better and continue our mission of being the most veteran-friendly state in the Nation. Stay safe and healthy!
John Maxwell, Commissioner
Virginia Department of Veterans Services