By Dave Ongie, News Editor
During his time in Washington, D.C., Rep. Phil Roe has been deeply involved in veteran’s affairs.
Last Friday morning, Roe recalled asking how much the VA spent on suicide prevention 15 years ago. The number was around $2.5 billion. Next year, President Donald Trump has requested $9.5 billion in funding, yet an average of 20 veterans are still dying each day die as a result of suicide.
“We’ve almost quadrupled the money, and yet, we’ve made no dent in the actual numbers,” Roe said. “We’ve got to do something different.”
With that in mind, Roe held several roundtable discussions with members of the community last Friday at Appalachian Community Federal Credit Union in Gray. He also attended a town hall meeting on the Mountain Home VA campus last Saturday morning. Roe was accompanied by Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, executive director of the PREVENTS (The President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide) Task Force.
The task force was formed as a result of an executive order signed by Trump back in March and includes all of Trump’s cabinet members and other leaders. The charge is to formulate an all-hands-on-deck approach to integrate public and private entities across the nation to empower veterans and prevent suicide.
On Friday, Roe and Van Dahlen talked with members of the community in a general roundtable before meeting with education leaders, faith-based groups and first responders.
“We realize in this country that we have a suicide epidemic, just like we have a drug epidemic,” Roe said.
In order to address that epidemic, Van Dahlen said it is vital for everyone to be involved. She also added that finding ways for existing organizations and agencies to better coordinate their efforts will play a big role in turning the tide.
“One of the things we’re seeing that I’m actually more exciting about is the coordination and the collaboration between those organizations,” Van Dahlen said. “What has happened in the past is organizations or government agencies trying to do it on their own, then you get two groups trying to do the same thing and they don’t even know they are in the same community.”
The goal is to utilize a public health approach to broadly change the culture of mental health and shape how suicide is addressed nationally. Roe and Van Dahlen both agreed that the first step in that battle is to remove the stigma surrounding those who seek help for mental health issues.
Beyond that, Roe said folks struggling with mental health issues need to know where to go and who to call in order to receive the help they need.
‘We’ve disassembled our infrastructure,” Roe said. “Forty or 50 years ago, we had 4,000 inpatient beds, state-run, in Tennessee, and now we have none. We don’t have a place for people to go.”
Van Dahlen said reducing suicide will require changing the culture when it comes to our approach to mental health. But the bottom line is statistics show those who seek help are very likely to find relief.
“I know we can address these challenges,” Van Dahlen said. “Eighty or 90 percent of people who seek treatment for depression get better, but we don’t help people know that. If we get the word out, we’re more likely to get people in the hands of those who can help them.”