White House seeks culture shift about mental health in fight to prevent veteran suicides

"Many of us walk around feeling like 'I shouldn't share it,' or 'I'm embarrassed,'" said Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, director of the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS). "We need to change that, and when we change that, we'll save people's lives."

Last Updated:
June 30, 2020 - 10:38pm

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The leader of the White House's task force to fight veteran suicide is focused "heavily on changing our culture" toward mental health, since many veterans don't seek care until it's too late.

Without destigmatizing seeking care, veterans could continue to feel shame and avoid getting mental health treatment, according to Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, executive director of the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS). 

"Mental health issues, suicide — these are challenges that typically have not received the kind of attention [as] other health care, you know, cancer, diabetes," Van Dahlen told Just the News in a video interview. "But cancer went through its own transformation where people didn't use to talk about it because it scared them, and so they would whisper 'You know, cancer, somebody has cancer,' and we've moved way past that. So mental health makes people very uneasy, very uncomfortable, makes you feel vulnerable. It's not something that people have talked about. We're changing that. That's a good thing. People are talking about their own struggles and challenges." 

Based on current reports from the Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans die each day by suicide. A report released by the Centers for Disease Control in 2018 indicates that suicide overall has risen in the United States over the last 25 years.

Senior administration officials say the nation's suicide rate increased by 30% in the past 25 years and that a 1% increase in the unemployment rate is associated with a 1% increase in the national suicide rate.

The PREVENTS task force was created by President Trump through an executive order he signed in March 2019.

The roadmap created by the task force and released earlier this month has three components:

  • A comprehensive national “Roadmap” combining efforts by the federal government with state, regional, business, nonprofit, faith-based, academic and community efforts. 
  • A series of recommended legislative proposals for Congress to help prevent veteran suicide, including increasing funding specifically for this area as well as looking outside of clinical care for more comprehensive community solutions to provide veteran support.
  • A national research strategy to better collect data about which treatments and interventions are effective at preventing veteran suicides, including for veterans who are experiencing a range of compounding factors that could put a veteran at risk for suicide.

The administration reports that suicide rates and suicide hotlines nationwide are now rising during the spike in unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Administration officials also said the U.S. veteran suicide rate was about 1.5 times that of the general population suicide rate and among female veterans even higher — 2.2 times that of the suicide rate for the general public. 

Van Dahlen said as suicide rates rise, the need for cultural shifts rises as well.

"But it's only now possible that we can actually have this national-level conversation about mental health and suicide," she said. "So it's an extraordinary time. And I think we will see the culture shifting because I think people want to talk about these things that are human conditions, human experiences that we all have, but many of us walk around feeling like 'I shouldn't share it,' or 'I'm embarrassed.' We need to change that, and when we change that, we'll save people's lives." 

 

Watch the full Just the News interview with Dr. Van Dahlen below: 

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