Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough
DoD-VA Suicide Prevention Conference
May 18, 2021
Secretary Austin’s powerful words got right to the heart of the matter. That justifiable sense of urgency and deep commitment to the important and powerful work ahead is vital to the progress we have to make.
Secretary Austin knows first-hand the dangerous, difficult, and complex missions our servicemembers shoulder each and every day. When it comes to preparing and equipping our men and women for battle—and caring for those already engaged—they couldn’t be in better hands.
President Biden has said our most sacred obligation is to prepare and equip the troops we send into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families when they return home. And President Biden has given me a clear mission, to be a fierce, staunch advocate for them and their families when they come home as Veterans. And I am going to fight like hell every day to ensure we serve Veterans as well as they have served this country. So, I am honored to be a part of this very important conference focused on finding the effective combination of programs, treatments, and initiatives that can save the lives of our Veterans and our servicemembers.
You’re going to talk about how to best apply public health principles and practices, work to determine what lessons we can pull from so we can move forward constructively and positively and quickly, and help us all understand how to address and conquer these incredibly complex problems and challenges that are literally a matter of life and death.
We’ve got a lot of good ideas, a lot of good services, a lot of good programs, and a lot of good people. But what we need to strengthen is our collective effort, our collective engagement of ideas, services, programs, and people. Our goal is to continue and advance collaborative engagement unified by a single vision, strategy, a lot of heart. That’s what it’s going to take to make substantial progress ending suicide. Our work now will determine the future of this health crisis.
Right now, we’re all still laser-focused on saving lives impacted by the COVID-19 health crisis. In a little over a year, COVID-19 has killed nearly 600,000 thousand people. But think about the enormous efforts and intellectual powerhouse in response to that worldwide crisis—finding, testing, and distributing an effective vaccine.
Our nation’s response to COVID proved what can be done when the best and brightest, the most committed people in our nation come together, collaborate, and contend with a crisis like no other. When our nation and the world needed it, the most brilliant minds—our doctors, researchers, and scientists—came together in response to the pandemic and developed a vaccine in record time to save the lives of others. Because of their work and ingenuity, we have effective vaccinations in the arms of over 107 million people. In a little over a year, we went from a global pandemic to vaccinating 56 percent of Americans.
Think about that. That’s incredible.
Parents, families, and communities dug painfully deep to meet complex and often competing demands at home and at work. Workplaces and employees flexed to meet the demands, many to incredibly challenging extents. And our teachers persevered and adapted technology to educate our kids in new forums and new ways.
COVID-19 was, has been, and remains incomprehensibly difficult. So, to each and every one of you who has experienced loss, thank you—thank you for being here and thank you for staying in the fight. But our nation’s been facing another threat for decades. I won’t recite numbers. We know them all too well, and they’re staggering. Suicide is a national health crisis, an epidemic. And there’s no vaccination. There’s no single solution. But our approach has to have the same drive, the same unified approach unleashed against COVID-19. Suicide is a human tragedy.
But it’s not an inevitable outcome. We have to prove that. I know this is no small challenge. This has been and it will continue to be exceptionally difficult. And I know that you have sacrificed a lot. But if we can make big progress on this crisis for Veterans and servicemembers, that’s big progress for all Americans. And you’re the people who can get this done. That is a fact.
So, to every VA Suicide Prevention Coordinator, case manager, care provider, and care team working REACH VET outreach, SPED follow-up, High Risk Flag care coordination, thank you. To every MSA and PSA ensuring ease of scheduling for every Veteran, thank you. To every supervisor taking the time to equitably support and guide every member of your team, thank you. To community outreach specialists working hard to build and foster community coalitions, thank you. And to every Veterans Crisis Line team member responding to Veterans’ and servicemembers’ even as we meet today, thank you. You can do this. You can—and I know you will—lead the way. The country is counting on you.
Every life lost to suicide is a tragedy. That act and the tragic loss of life lead us all to the same question—why would anyone, a Veteran, a servicemember, take their own lives?
It’s not a cynical or judgmental question. It’s the same question I ask myself, that you may ask yourselves, —in quiet moments when your heart hurts for the well-being of Veterans and servicemembers. We know there is no single path to suicide.
Imagine just for a moment the image of a tornado. That tornado is a complex force of interconnected, difficult to predict, and complicated factors that gather together—and often not in a clear, linear way—to create a powerful destructive force. Touch down is often brief, an intense moment of crisis that often leads to utter despair, hopelessness, and suicide. I think that portrays the complexity of suicide, and the complexity of suicide prevention. It’s not one thing, one problem, one challenge in a life.
Perhaps there are financial challenges—unemployment, debt. Perhaps it’s legal problems, incarceration. Perhaps there are incidents of post-traumatic stress or Traumatic Brain Injury or chronic pain from injury. Perhaps it’s a broken home or the loss of a loved one. Adding to that, perhaps it’s substance abuse—alcohol, opioids, or a combination. Perhaps it’s a combination of those factors—an incremental, creeping accumulation of challenges.
Now we have programs at every point along that pathway—programs that promote whole health and wellness, programs that promote healing and strength, programs to intervene at the moment of crisis. We’re leaders in mental health research and evidence-based treatments, including state-of-the-art psychotherapies for the full range of mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress.
In our Veterans Justice Programs, we conduct outreach in jails, prisons, and other criminal justice settings nationwide to help Veterans access these and other needed services at the earliest possible point.
And we have a wide range of highly developed programs including the National Veterans Crisis Line, an amazing network of suicide prevention coordinators, and partnerships with state and local governments to reach Veterans at risk of suicide.
Despite our best efforts, there are gaps. That tells me there is still much more to do.VA is with you 110 percent. We’re shoulder to shoulder with the Department of Defense and Secretary Austin. Thanks to each of you, we’ll continue what we’re doing well, we’ll thoughtfully rethink what we have to improve, and we’ll collectively engage.
May God bless all of you, our Veterans and their families, caregivers, and survivors. And may we always give them our very best.