On September 7, VA Puget Sound Health Care System partnered with the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs to host a historic gathering of local, state and federal leaders to discuss collective opportunities to address Veteran suicide and the stressors that contribute to mental health crises among Veterans. Participants included, Veterans Benefits Administration, Seahawks, University of Washington, Joint Based Lewis-McChord, AMVETS, Operation Military Family, NineLine Veteran Services and Washington Cohen Veterans Network leadership along with three members of Congress—Rep. Rick Larsen (WA02), Rep. Suzan DelBene (WA01) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (WA07)—and State Representatives Tina Orwall and Mari Leavitt.
"Reducing the risk of suicide for Washington veterans will take a team effort. Thank you to VA Puget Sound for inviting me to join the Suicide Prevention Think Tank to hear from local leaders about how to build partnerships and better serve local veterans," said Representative Rick Larsen (WA-02). "I am focused on veterans' employment, education, health care and housing opportunities to address many of the root causes that can lead to mental health crises for the nearly 51,000 veterans in my district. It is also critical to work together to improve access to mental health care and eliminate any stigma, so veterans get the help they need."
“Suicide among veterans is a crisis that demands our urgent attention. Veterans face many challenges in their transition back to civilian life, and as a government, we should be doing all we can to help them succeed and prevent these high rates of suicide,” said Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (WA-7). “I’m working on expanding mental health resources, increasing access to affordable housing, and curbing access to guns for those experiencing mental health emergencies. I am committed to continuing to work with experts and community leaders to find solutions to this epidemic and protect those who have protected us.”
Stressful life events like divorce, job loss, substance use, or housing troubles can be risk factors for suicide. Among Veterans, these challenges can be compounded by stigma around sharing their problems with others and seeking help. In 2020, there were 6,146 Veteran suicides. This was on average 16.8 per day. In 2020, there were 343 fewer Veteran suicides than in 2019, and the number of Veteran suicides was lower than each prior year since 2006.
“Our Suicide Prevention Think Tank—the largest and most complex such meeting in VA Puget Sound’s history—represents our commitment to focus federal, state and local attention on the collective actions we can take to prevent suicide among our nation’s heroes,” said VA Puget Sound Health Care System Executive Director Dr. Thomas Bundt. “Life’s challenges—like trouble sleeping or financial stress—can often lead to crisis. By working together, we are positioned help tackle employment, housing affordability, mental health, food insecurities and other stressors to support readjustment after separation so Veterans aren’t struggling to the point of a mental health crisis. Our Veterans don’t have to solve these challenges alone!”
The goal of the Suicide Prevention Think Tank was to focus on collective actions that can be done on the local, state and federal levels to address Veteran suicide, showcase best practices that are making a difference for possible diffusing across other the aisle, help remove obstacles being faced by connecting to the expertise and resources across the participating organizations and to identify the top issues in the hopes of collectively addressing.
The group identified five priorities areas to collectively focus on:
- Increasing access to telehealth care for Veterans living in rural areas of Washington State by continuing to invest in the infrastructure and technology.
- Finding ways to reach Veterans who live in rural communities, so they are aware of resources available to them—from health care to housing.
- Supporting improved warm hand offs across organizations to ensure there are no gaps for transitioning servicemembers, Veterans and their families.
- Increasing support of military families for mental health challenges and everyday stressors such as relationship and financial challenges.
- Continuing support of priorities outlined in the Washington State’s Governor Challenge, accepted by Governor Jay Inslee in January 2020: identification of service members and their families, and Veterans to support suicide risk screening; promotion of connectedness and improved care transition; and increase lethal means safety and safety planning.
“I appreciated the leadership and collaboration in the room. None of our organizations can accomplish this work independently. Through the Governor's challenge and legislation passed in recent years, WDVA and our partners have made significant progress in Suicide Prevention. Sharing best practices that are working and identifying areas to improve is a benefit for all of us. The collaborative discussions and decisions made will help generate awareness and share a message of Hope across our state,” said Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs Director David Puente Jr.
“We gained new insights and contacts that will help us and our “Task Force 12” partners to reach and connect with Veterans who are in distress,” said Seattle Seahawks Vice President of Outreach & External Affairs Mike Flood.
“When people are curious, come together and listen, like really listen with a common goal to improve lives and outcomes, that’s when true change and transformation takes shape. That’s what this Roundtable provided: the foundation to change lives,” said Operation Military Family Founder and CEO Mike Schindler.
“The VA Puget Sound Think Tank was a great opportunity to connect with community partners who have a shared priority of reducing and mitigating the risk of suicide. This forum offered us great insights into community resources and options to better serve the military, Veteran and family communities,” said Joint Base-Lewis-McChord Director Behavioral Health and Director of Psychological Health Service, Lt. Col. Osceola (Ossie) Evans, who is also the Behavioral Health Market Lead, Puget Sound Military Health System. “This was an important and worthwhile event. We look forward to collaborating and getting to know our local, state and federal partners.”
“This Suicide Prevention Think Tank was highly effective due to the collaboration involving a diverse mix of leaders who support the Veteran community, together we are able to identify areas of focus that will help in efforts to increase awareness of at-risk Veterans in support of suicide prevention,” said Veterans Benefits Administration Seattle VA Regional Office Executive Director Pritz Navaratnasingam. “Connecting Veterans to resources is critical. We are excited for how we can continue these partnerships in support of our Veteran community.”
"I found great value in being included in the Suicide Prevention Think Tank,” said NineLine Veteran Services Chief of Staff Marcus Brewer. “Being around such a diverse group of leaders was both inspirational and educational—and opened my eyes to all the wonderful things that are not only going on locally, but also on a national platform to address suicide. I'm grateful for this opportunity."
“Having leadership at all levels present at yesterday's Veteran Suicide Prevention Think Tank was not just significant—it was transformative. It re-energized my resolve, reaffirming that collective action is the cornerstone of lasting change. I'm profoundly grateful for the opportunity to be a voice for women veterans and transitioning service members. It's a vivid reminder that when we unite in purpose, we can transcend barriers and make real strides in safeguarding the well-being of those who've served our nation,” said AMVETS Service Director and Women Veterans Advisory Committee Chair Member Victoria Burgess.
"Being a part of the VA Puget Sound Suicide Prevention Think Tank was such a profound opportunity as both a professional and personally as military spouse. It was inspiring to hear the level of passion, thoughtfulness and collaboration already happening in our community and this roundtable has created a foundation further innovation to quite literally save lives within our community. I am incredibly honored to have had the opportunity to share our team's mission, connect with a diverse group of leaders and give voice to some of the unique needs of our military families within the conversation. Director of the Cohen Military Family Clinic in Washington, Dr. Nichole Ayres.
“It was an honor to participate in the think tank forum that included experts from the VA and DVA on suicide prevention efforts,” stated Washington State Representative (33rd District) Tina Orwall. “And I look forward to strengthening our partnerships to support for veterans and their families during times of crisis.”
Veterans in crisis or concerned about one, are encouraged to contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive 24/7 confidential support. Veterans don't have to be enrolled in VA benefits or health care to connect. To reach responders, dial 988 then Press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net, or text 838255. The goal with the easier to remember, 988 number, is that it becomes as second nature as calling 911.
The Suicide Prevention Think Tank photos are featured at Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs’s albums | Flickr.
About VA Puget Sound
VA Puget Sound provides comprehensive care to more than 155,000 enrolled Veterans across Western Washington with a primary care team at one of its care sites: two main campuses (American Lake and Seattle), seven outpatient clinics (Edmonds, Everett, Mount Vernon, Olympia, Port Angeles, Puyallup and Silverdale) and Community Resource & Referral Center (Georgetown neighborhood in Seattle) and a Homeless Primary Care Team in Renton. As the VA’s 4th largest research program, VA Puget Sound has research in virtually every major clinical department, including: TBI and multiple blast exposures; memory improvement and Alzheimer's Disease; PTSD and deployment health; Parkinson’s Disease; diabetes; cancer; substance abuse; lower limb prosthetics; genomics; and Health Services. Additionally, it has seven nationally recognized Centers of Excellence (in areas from limb-loss prevention and prosthetic engineering to primary care education and substance abuse treatment). For more information visit www.va.gov/puget-sound-health-care or call 800-329-8387. For Veterans in Crisis, please use the Veterans Crisis line at 988 (press 1).