As a national leader in suicide prevention, VA understands that more needs to be done and we cannot do it alone. Nearly 200 mental health professionals, caregivers, veterans and their families, veteran service organizations, members of Congress and experts from other federal agencies answered the call to action this week, a call to end the tragedy of Veteran suicide. It was a day dedicated to listening, getting to know each other and learning. It was a day of reflection, hope, inspiration and idea generation.
We pulled this together in record time — 30 days from conception to execution. The reason for the urgency was because this is truly urgent and when there is a crisis– it is important to act as if there is a crisis. We cannot accept Veteran suicides as inevitable and we cannot accept the status quo.
Among the attendees at yesterday’s summit on “Preventing Veteran Suicide – A Call to Action,” were Susan and Richard Selke. Their son, Clay Hunt, was a Marine Corps Veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who took his own life in 2011. Their moving story and inspiring call for improving mental health care for Veterans like their son was an emotional reminder of how Veteran and Servicemember suicide impacts all Americans and needs to be addressed in a coordinated effort with government and community stakeholders.
Dr. Howard and Jean Somers, parents of Sgt. Daniel Somers, also spoke on learning from their son’s suicide. “We must insist on a refocus on VA health care to become a center of excellence for war related injuries.” I couldn’t agree more.
Both of these families turned their grief into action — to give hope to the hopeless, and to save others from knowing the pain they have known. I am grateful to them for their courage and perseverance and for sharing their story.
President Obama joined us by video and re-emphasized that “Caring for our Veterans is a national mission. So long as any Veteran is hurting and needs help our work is not done.”
Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shulkin and Secretary McDonald speak with participants at Preventing Veteran Suicide: A Call to Action
We had the benefit of hearing from Army Veteran Brent Rice and Air Force Veteran John Heitzman. They shared their very personal experiences. Rice shared that volunteering to help others is what helped him recover. For Heitzman, he explained it was the VA who helped him through his difficult time. As Dr. Thomas Joiner, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University told us, “Only care and follow up is proven to completely stop suicidal tendencies.” He went on to say, “One solution is a hope box that reminds people of what they have to live for–we have to get better at learning how to motivate people to take up offers of connection.”
While we had a conversation in D.C., thousands joined the conversation across the nation. In fact, #PreventVetSuicide was recognized as a Twitter trending topic for the day and was the top trending hash-tag in more than 10 U.S. cities. Many positive comments came from the online discussion, along with some very personal sharing from those who knew people who succumbed to suicide. Here is a collection of some of the more prevalent social media posts.
I’m grateful to all of our speakers and to everyone that attended. We met because suicides are an unacceptable crisis in our Veterans’ lives. VA depends so much on the work of others to accomplish our mission — on their research, their expertise, their insight, and their commitment to suicide prevention.
Yesterday’s summit is a starting point. Now we need to work together to end this crisis and help the men and women who are now serving and have served their country. Thank you for all you do for Veterans each and every day.
About the Author: Dr. David J. Shulkin is the Under Secretary for Health, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs