July 2022 News!
Happy Independence Day to you all! We hope you enjoyed a safe holiday with family and friends enjoying traditions and celebrations.
The subject line of this email is an intentional play on words—stars and strides. This is a nod to our freedom and independence of course as the United States celebrates the 4th of July, and it highlights the work—strides—being done in the name of mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
July is a big month as the national initiative of 988 officially rolls out. And, with the patriotic theme in full force across our community, there is much emphasis on protecting our veterans as they heal and adapt to their own versions of freedom. Read more below on each topic.
Enjoy all July has to offer!
Reyne & Scott Roeder
Federally mandated crisis number 988 goes into effect July 16th, and will provide a single three-digit number to access a network of over 200 local and state funded crisis centers. 988 callers who are suicidal or experiencing a mental health crisis will be routed to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and connected to a crisis counselor where they may receive crisis counseling, resources and referrals, and in some cases and where available, mobile crisis units may be dispatched. While 988 is intended to help fill gaps in the behavioral health crisis continuum, there is concern about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s readiness to handle the increased volume, which is expected to triple from 4 up to 12 million calls in the first year alone.
In 2020, Congress designated 988 as the new dialing code to operate through the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) network of local call centers, which are staffed by trained crisis counselors. 988 is more than just an easy-to-remember number—it is a direct connection to compassionate, accessible support for anyone experiencing mental health-related distress, including thoughts of suicide, mental health or substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress. People can also dial 988 if they are worried about a loved one who may need these types of crisis supports.
What is the vision for 988? In the short-term, the goal is to strengthen and expand the current Lifeline call center infrastructure and capacity to ensure trained crisis counselors are available to quickly respond to 988 via call, text, or chat. In the longer term, the vision is to build a robust crisis response system across the country that links callers to community-based providers who can deliver a full range of
crisis care services, if needed (like mobile crisis teams or stabilization centers). This more robust system will be essential to meeting crisis care needs across the nation.
Traveling Saddle Stories
Raising Awareness for PTSD & Veterans
Summertime by George is back for the summer season in St. Cloud each Wednesday evening. One of the featured booth vendors is The Central Minnesota Suicide Prevention Coalition. CMSPC was established in 2019 as a community-based coalition to end suicide. CMSPC’s mission to accomplish the vision by empowering, educating, equipping, and engaging the communities of Benton, Sherburne, Stearns, and Wright Counties.
In June, CMSPC’s booth featured a special art installment—a horse saddle created by hand featuring compelling stories. Mike Bray is a leatherman, and owner of Bray Leather Studio in Monticello. As a veteran himself, one of his commemorative saddles is themed around the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicide in the veteran community. Bray gathered information and context by interviewing those affected by PTSD and suicide and memorialized the courageous, compelling stories he heard by adding them to the saddle. Along with quotes, there are also several images including a dog with a leash and a man bonding with a horse.
From an article in Owatonna.com, Bray shared, “Twenty-two veterans die every day by suicide. Then I looked further and learned 18 cops and firefighters are lost a day combined. Then looked at the general public—it’s an epidemic out there.”
“The two animals that help people the most with PTSD are dogs and horses,” Bray said. “If you know anything about horses, you can see here the guy is getting healed by the horse. It’s a special bond.”
Ending the Silence
The public has a bad frame of reference, or none at all, when it comes to the challenges veterans can face. That’s mostly because the military and veteran communities are small; less than 1% of the U.S. population is currently serving in the military, and 80% of veterans report having an immediate family member who served. Thus, few civilians have relationships to help inform their thoughts on veteran issues. The problem is exacerbated by one-dimensional media stereotypes of veterans. It’s no wonder that 64% of veterans say they feel misunderstood.
It has been difficult to change the narrative surrounding veteran suicide. But to implement smarter policy at the Department of Veterans Affairs for suicide prevention initiatives, we have to do just that. Otherwise, the issue will remain a tired policy discussion that officials become numb to, and the lack of urgency and creativity in solutions will persist.
According to data from the VA, 17 veterans a day — 6,205 per year — take their own lives. When presented with these sobering statistics, most people are shocked and angry. But, like the VA, civilians generally associate veteran suicide with a mental health issue related to their service, such as post-traumatic stress.
The reality is different; only a small percentage of veterans are diagnosed with PTSD, and at the moment of decision, mental health symptoms may not be the main driver. Lack of purpose, no support system, financial struggle, healthcare issues, and relationship stress are all just as likely to be the proverbial straw that breaks a veteran’s will to live.
Attempting to reduce veteran suicide by viewing solutions through the prism of mental health has, objectively, not worked. It never will. But the VA has refused to concede this point at a huge cost. To be clear, mental healthcare is an important part of the solution. But veterans who have taken their lives needed a sense of urgency and creative ideas from officials charged with their care.
Despite dramatic increases in the VA’s budget and positive reforms from Congress, such as the Commander John Scott Hannon Act (S.785), the agency remains mired in bureaucracy that can be frustrating for any individual veteran to navigate. This frustration is likely why just 50% of veterans in America choose to use the VA for healthcare.
The Mission Roll Call team met with VA Secretary Denis McDonough’s senior staff late last year to underscore the importance of making suicide prevention the VA’s No. 1 priority. But the secretary instead named timely access to world-class healthcare and benefits as his top priority for 2022 at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. He went so far as to say, “Anything else we do won’t matter.” Subsequently, the administration released its annual budget request, which ended up including just $497 million for suicide prevention, or one-tenth of 1% of the total $301 billion request.
The VA’s significantly larger budget for mental health, which is the linchpin of its suicide prevention strategy, focuses on “providing a system of comprehensive treatments and services to meet the needs of each veteran … increasing access to quality mental healthcare and lowering the cost of mental health services.” But what is the plan to reach the unknowable number of veterans who don’t have a touch point with the VA who might take their own lives?
The community organization grant funding Congress included in S.785 is a great start. Lawmakers recognized that the VA is not nimble enough to create connections with veterans that local organizations have. But, the VA being the VA, it still hasn’t awarded the hundreds of millions of dollars in grant funding almost two years later. The anemic $497 million in suicide prevention funding this year includes $174 million in this funding.
Going forward, Congress and the VA should aggressively expand this program. It’s a way to promote community buy-in toward creative solutions faster and get veterans the care they need in or out of the VA system.
Everyone agrees that the epidemic of veteran suicide is a tragedy in need of urgent solutions. But making progress will require a shift in perspective by VA leadership. This will only happen if the public and Congress consistently and passionately demand change.
That’s why veterans, and people who support them, must tell policymakers in Washington to make suicide prevention the VA’s No. 1 priority. And that means approaching veteran suicide as more than something that can be addressed through mental healthcare alone.
We need to have a sense of urgency about the issue. Veteran suicide is stealing what might otherwise be a lifetime of service to families, friends, and communities. Simply put, the VA needs to do better. When the policy under discussion is veteran suicide, failure has deadly consequences.
Cole Lyle is the executive director of Mission Roll Call, former policy adviser in the U.S. Senate and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and combat veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Resources & Can't-Miss:
Scheduling ‘Mental Health’ Days
CNBC piece highlighting the necessity of prioritizing mental health days—monthly—in order to build in days of lower stress, reflection, and levity.
Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness
New series from PBS created by famed documentarian Ken Burns chronicling the American crisis affecting our kids. The two-part series is available to stream and features the unabashed stories of 20 young people sharing their stories of hope … and despair.
Substance Use & Addiction Resources
Resource portal from CentraCare covering many different aspects of substance use and addiction including an online mental health screening.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Dial 988 or text “MN” to 741-741