This World Suicide Prevention Day, let's recommit to protecting the lives of our veterans

by Sens. Jon Tester and Jerry Moran

Americans are currently experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and uncertainty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social isolation, economic hardship, and frightening health risks are collectively taking a toll on our mental health. Limited access to resources critical to coping with these unique challenges has left one population particularly at an increased risk of suicide-our veterans.

Even prior to the pandemic, veterans experienced a higher rate of suicide and mental health conditions than their civilian peers. Veterans of different generations, of different genders, on different coasts, who fought in wars decades apart were equally impacted. And as senators, each day we heard from families, servicemembers, and veterans who ask, “What more can be done to address this public mental health emergency?”

There is no single explanation or reason for suicide, and prevention strategies and treatments can vary. While post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries are prominent among veterans, research shows that other conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder also contribute to suicide among our veterans. What has become abundantly clear over the last few months is that these conditions, coupled with the impacts of COVID-19 on daily life, could exacerbate these issues for veterans battling invisible wounds of war.

This World Suicide Prevention Day, we must recommit ourselves to protecting the lives of those who gave so much for our nation. Veterans like Commander John Scott Hannon – a decorated Navy SEAL and Montanan who sadly lost his courageous fight with post-traumatic stress, bipolar disorder, and the effects of a traumatic brain injury in February 2018.

Commander Hannon is recognized for far more than his service history and the wounds he bore as a result. His family and friends remember him as a passionate mental health advocate for veterans, someone with a gentle heart and a fierce belief in taking tangible actions to conquer big challenges. He lives on as the namesake of our landmark legislation to provide life-saving care to our nation’s veterans – the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care and Improvement Act, S. 785.

Our legislation invests in critical suicide prevention services, innovative research, and improvements to mental health care for all veterans. Amongst its many provisions, it establishes a grant program that requires the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to collaborate with community organizations to help identify, and treat, veterans at risk of suicide. It also requires the VA to conduct further research on brain and mental health conditions; expand telehealth partnerships to deliver better care to veterans in rural areas; and allow veterans to take advantage of emerging, complimentary and integrative treatments. And, it is backed by nearly 40 veteran service organizations, mental health patient advocacy groups, and entities who serve veterans in communities across the nation.

As chairman and ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, we called on the Senate earlier this year to quickly pass this bipartisan bill to support veterans in need. On Aug. 5, 2020, the Senate demonstrated overwhelming support for this legislation, passing S. 785 unanimously. This legislation now advances to the U.S. House of Representatives, where we once again seek bold and swift action from our colleagues to ensure Congress follows through on its commitment to those who have served.

Increased risk factors from COVID-19 and the isolation the pandemic has brought on is a perfect storm for our nation’s veterans. It is imperative we take action now more than ever. Congress must continue to work to connect more veterans with the resources and support they need and earned.

For any veteran reading this message who may be experiencing thoughts of suicide, help is just a phone call away. Call a trusted friend, family member, or reach out to the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, or text 838255.