BENTONVILLE -- The secretary for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs came to Bentonville on Tuesday to meet with community groups from across the state on veteran suicide prevention.
"Veterans were trained to put a mission or others ahead of themselves," Secretary Denis McDonough told a crowd of at least 80 during a panel discussion about suicide prevention at the University of Arkansas Global Campus facility in Bentonville. "That can make it hard to ask for help."
The department works with faith and community leaders and wants to improve this coordination, he told the audience. His remarks were followed by an hourlong discussion between representatives of those groups and a panel of federal, regional and state veteran agencies, including administrators of the state's two major VA hospitals.
The department's 2022 report on veteran suicides reported a decline in the rate compared to recent years, but an average number of suicides among veterans that is still higher than that of the population in general. The study found a suicide rate 57% greater for veterans than for nonveterans in 2020, the most recent year with complete statistics. The study found an average of 16.8 veteran suicides per day in 2020.
The department is in a constant battle against the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health, McDonough told the group.
"It's the narrative, not the veterans, that are broken," he said.
Amy Perry of Hope, chaplain for the nonprofit veterans' group We Are the 22, told the secretary the biggest complaint by far for veterans seeking help on mental health or any other issue was not being able to get their prescriptions filled. We Are the 22 takes its name from the 22 veteran suicides a day at the height of these tragedies.
Veterans in Arkansas often live far from any mental health care or other kinds of medical providers, Perry said. She's a veteran who drives 96 miles one way to access basic health care in Hot Springs, she said. Those who seek out the care are then told too often their insurance doesn't cover the medication they need. McDonough assured Perry the Department of Veterans Affairs will work to provide needed medication even for those not enrolled in the department's programs.
In 24% of suicides, the attempt is done within five minutes of the impulse to do it, McDonough said. Almost 75% of cases take place within 60 minutes of the impulse, he said. Also, if the attempt is made with a highly lethal means of doing so, such as a firearm, he said the attempts are fatal 90% of the time.
Facts like those spurred the federal government to dedicate "988" on July 16, 2022, as an easily remembered number for people in suicidal crisis to call or text for help, he said.
McDonough thanked U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Rogers, for his efforts in fostering greater cooperation between the department and community organizations, particularly in obtaining $50 million in federal money to help the coordination effort.
The secretary took media questions after Tuesday's event. He said the department hasn't yet fully assessed what will happen if Congress fails to fund the government in the current budget deadlock, but whatever happens, veterans will keep receiving their benefits. In-person services such as contact centers and maintenance at the grounds of national cemeteries will stop, but burials at national cemeteries will continue, he said.
Veterans Affairs Department Veteran Suicide Prevention website: www.va.gov/health-care/health-needs-conditions/mental-health/suicide-prevention/
Departments 2022 report on veteran suicides: www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/data-sheets/2022/2022-National-Veteran-Suicide-Prevention-Annual-Report-FINAL-508.pdf