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Congress Is Paying More Attention To Veteran Suicide, But Progress Is Slow

Kristen Christy poses with her husband Don in a 2005 photo. Don, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, died by suicide in 2008.
Kristen Christy
Kristen Christy poses with her husband Don in a 2005 photo. Don, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, died by suicide in 2008.

New federal laws seek to improve mental health care for veterans and their families. But advocates say it will take time for local communities to feel the effects.

Kristen Christy is often called an expert on the issue of veterans' suicide, but it's not by choice. Twelve years ago, her husband Don, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, died by suicide, shocking Kristen and their family.

"I had no idea," Kristen said. "Suicide was not on my radar whatsoever."

In the years since, she has learned a lot - not just the warning signs of suicide, which can vary from person to person - but how the ripple effect hits families and friends.

Their two sons both struggled after the loss of their father. Her oldest, Ryan, suffered from addiction in his teen years. After getting clean, he disappeared. Christy hasn't heard from him in five years. Her younger son, Ben, left her a tearful message on his 20th birthday about the hole left in his life.

"I miss Dad so much," he cried in the voice mail, which became part of an Air Force suicide prevention ad.

All this led Christy to become a veterans suicide prevention advocate, working with groups near her home in Colorado Springs.

"I say we're on an emotional battlefield, and how can we arm our veterans, our active duty, and their family members with the armor and the weapons that they need to combat whatever they're going through?" she said.

The rates of suicide among those who've served continues to be much higher than the national average - 27.5 per 100,000 in 2018 for veterans compared to 18.2 per 100,000 for non-veterans. That disparity has continued despite prevention campaigns, more focus on mental health, and an Air Force "stand down" to shine a spotlight on the issue.

In recent months, Congress has taken some steps to grapple with veterans' mental health issues and bolster suicide prevention overall.

A law passed last year bolsters and expands veterans mental health care, with a particular emphasis on rural veterans. It also extends grant money for community organizations helping veterans. Many of its provisions will take effect in 2021.

"It's my hope that the bill will also serve as a signal to our veterans, service members, and their families that they are never, never alone," said Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas on the Senate floor.

Kristen Christy speaks to military spouses in Feb. 2020 at Altus Air Force Base, Okla. Christy has traveled to several bases telling the story of her husband's suicide.
Credit Cody Dowell / U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force
Kristen Christy speaks to military spouses in Feb. 2020 at Altus Air Force Base, Okla. Christy has traveled to several bases telling the story of her husband's suicide.

Another major law passed in December was the Veterans Compact Act. Its nine provisions aim to enhance veterans' mental health and well-being and prevent death by suicide. It includes free care for veterans experiencing mental health crises, programs to better understand the mental health needs of women veterans, and help for veterans' families.

"When we take care of families, we also take care of veterans," said Democratic Rep. Mark Takano of California.

Takano said that while these bills address known gaps in care and intervention, much more should be done to reduce veteran suicide. He said he's hopeful that the new Congress will take steps in that direction.

Duane France, Director of Veteran Services for the Family Care Center in Colorado Springs and an Army veteran, agrees.

"We need to be able to establish infrastructure both in personnel and in funds at the community level so we can address it where it's happening, rather than trying to establish this blanket overarching solution," France said.

He pictures federal help as an inverted pyramid. There are lot of resources and people concentrated at the top - on the federal and state level. But there's much less available at the local level. He said local treatment providers need more support and an easier way to deal with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

And France said he'd like to see effort address more than just mental health.

"Not all veterans who died by suicide are experiencing a mental health crisis. It could be financial, it could be relational, it could be employment-related," he explained. "So we really need to be able to have a community response."

France's county -  El Paso County, Colorado -  loses a veteran a week to suicide, according to the most recent data available.

Other reforms that advocates have praised, such as a law establishing an easy-to-remember three-digit number, 988, to reach a suicide prevention hotline, won't start until July 2022.

Christy suggested veterans and their loved ones be proactive: Put the current 10 digit suicide prevention hotline - 1-800-273-8255 -in your phone now and don't wait until there's a crisis to find the number. She also supports more partnerships with nonprofits and communities and the military. She said it's about helping build resilience early on, when families are still active duty.

"I use our story because I have this desire for people to understand the aftermath and what's left behind," Christy said.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC

Caitlyn Kim
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