Opinion

What the fight against coronavirus can teach us about veterans suicide

Everyone is at risk and can get it. We’re not fully sure why it spreads so quickly and who’s likely to be affected. We know some are more vulnerable than others, and we collectively encourage everyone to know the red flags as part of a broad containment strategy. Our government has thrown a lot of money at the problem, but measurable success remains elusive. Experts are scrambling to come up with preventative measures and ways to treat it more timely and effectively. While many lives have been saved through current efforts, too many are still being lost.

Now that we’ve touched on veteran suicide, let’s turn our attention to the coronavirus.

Views on the federal government’s response to the coronavirus, or COVID-19, epidemic range from excellent to abysmal thus far, depending on whom you ask. Less debated is once the public became aware of the concept of “social distancing” as it relates to the spread of the virus, more people were willing to be an active part of the solution, with better-than-moderate success. Never have I seen more people letting others graciously pass in narrow store aisles or respect the personal space of strangers in an elevator.

While the “fog of war” often makes it hard to disseminate good information amidst the white noise of uncertainty and conflicting sources, a general consensus on what everyone needed to know and how to respond made the difference: wash your hands; cover your mouth when you cough; and if you feel sick, stay home so that others aren’t sickened. Many of us may never really know whether our individual contribution made a statistical difference, but we will have some idea of whether our actions made an actual difference in our individual lives.

In other words, we were taught what to look for, have a sense of what the red flags are, and what we should do immediately when we spot one of those red flags. Any time I talk to groups such as law enforcement officers, military leaders, or family members about what they can do to stop veteran suicide, it’s the very same prescription. Older veterans die by suicide in the highest numbers. Certain situational factors, such as gender, trauma exposure, mental impairment, physical disability, and moral injury, place specific groups at greater risk based on known rates of suicide among those similar situated. Knowing who’s at risk and why puts those who are best equipped to intervene, which is ideally all of us on some level, in a position to do so earlier than or perhaps even prior to the moment a crisis hits.

Speaking of intervention, once it had become clear that stopping the spread of the coronavirus required community involvement with help from, versus over reliance on, the federal government, the collaborative, multi-level effort to stop the spread had achieved greater sync. The invocation of the Defense Production Act allowed the Trump Administration to require companies to prioritize government contracts and orders seen as necessary to protect the country, in order to ensure that the private sector is producing enough goods needed to confront a national emergency. This armed local programs and organizations with the tools to develop, obtain, and allocate resources, such as hospital masks, gloves, hand soap, where needed as governors deployed their national guard units and mayors closed schools, beaches, and major public gathering areas.

We might see a similar dynamic should Congress ever find a way to overcome partisan impasses and finally pass H.R.3495, the Improve Well-Being for Veterans Act, and its senate companion, S.785, the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019. These bills would essentially test the feasibility of using federal government funding to provide grants for nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that provide mental health wellness services to veterans. Some pols insist those organizations must be vetted and well established. Others argue veterans themselves should decide what works for them and should have the power to choose a program, even if it’s new and largely non-evidence based. This would mean opening more access at government expense to non-traditional interventions, such as equine therapy, warrior retreats, canine companionship, and therapeutic recreation opportunities. Ideally, these options would be made available once the limits of evidence-based traditional approaches have been reached or if a veteran desires to try a different approach to achieving wellness.

The problem with comparing the response to the coronavirus epidemic to veteran suicide are the underlying differences in how they occur and whom they affect. One is a problem of indiscriminate proportions; the other is (wrongly) assumed to affect only those with severe mental issues and/or hardships of a profound nature. One is a disease where cause of death is fairly clear; the other leaves cause to speculation at times and is often obscured by stigmas, family shame, and other motives. While the coronavirus is acquired ostensibly through no fault of the victims, veteran suicide is still viewed by many as voluntary self-harm, resulting simply from mental breakdown and a lack of resilience.

Even if I grant those distinctions are valid, they are distinctions without a difference in this way: when accountability to resolve the problem is seen as largely resting with the federal government, failure is almost certain. The passage of even the most effective federal laws has a lag effect as the execution of those laws begins only once they compel meaningful action, not when the ink dries on the president’s signature. Unless and until the relevant and capable grassroots-level entities are empowered to directly help those whom the law is intended to impact, responses to crises through federal action are sure to fall short.

We’re now witnessing coordinated responses to the coronavirus crisis. A law has been enacted. Governments at every level have marshaled their efforts. Communities and individuals are educated, invested, and actively involved. Imagine if that were to happen where veteran suicide is concerned. The IMPROVE Act is signed into law; urban, suburban, and rural community organizations have the resources they need to reach and assist at-risk veterans while testing the efficacy of new approaches; and those veterans and their families have as good a chance, or better, of beating the suicide epidemic as they did the coronavirus. This can only happen, however, where comfort zones end and learning zones begin.

It should be noted that no one of consequence is loudly arguing for strict adherence to evidence-based approaches or the exclusive, careful engagement of organizations that fall along traditional pathways in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. Painstakingly-long isolated clinical trials and waits for research to bear fruit have given way to pushing global mega-trials and the testing of unapproved drugs, as many fear status-quo thinking will likely result in more lives lost. It’s time for our governments at all levels, with the help of communities and individuals, to get just as serious about veteran suicide by treating this epidemic with the same sense of urgency and openness to new approaches.

The House and Senate need to send the IMPROVE Act to President Trump’s desk for signature without further delay so that veterans who manage to survive the coronavirus epidemic also have a chance to survive an even deadlier one that has loomed for far too long.

Sherman Gillums Jr. is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer and chief advocacy officer at AMVETS, a congressionally chartered national veterans service organization representing the interests of more than 20 million veterans.

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