Few Details from Pentagon, VA After White House Unveils Suicide Prevention Plan Focused on Gun Safety

A photo illustration with the telephone number of the Veterans Crisis Line. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Zachary Hada)
A photo illustration with the telephone number of the Veterans Crisis Line. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Zachary Hada)

The White House this week rolled out a strategy to prevent military and veteran suicides with a focus on gun safety. But neither the Pentagon nor the Department of Veterans Affairs had provided much detail as of Wednesday on what specific actions they will be taking.

Under the White House plan unveiled Tuesday, several agencies, including the Defense Department and VA, are being tasked with crafting a "plan for addressing lethal means safety awareness, education, training and program evaluation."

"In the coming months, agencies will collaborate to raise awareness among service members, veterans, and their families; educate and train health care providers and crisis responders; and evaluate the effectiveness of existing and new programs that may reduce access to lethal means," the White House said in a fact sheet on the strategy. "This will include designing and launching a campaign to increase the safe storage of firearms and medications, and the use of safety planning interventions by providers."

In addition to the Pentagon and VA, the departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice and Transportation's office of emergency medical services will help create the plan, according to the White House.

Asked for comment on what specifically the Pentagon will do as part of the new strategy, a department spokesperson deferred to the White House since "the strategy is part of a cross-sector, interagency effort."

The VA, meanwhile, said the White House's new road map "aligns well" with its existing suicide prevention efforts.

"In the coming weeks, the administration will be moving forward with a series of executive actions designed to advance the priority goals," the VA added in a statement to Military.com, without elaborating on what the executive actions will be.

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The White House strategy, officially called "Reducing Military and Veteran Suicide: Advancing a Comprehensive, Cross-Sector, Evidence-Informed Approach," outlines five priority areas for the administration, including improving crisis care, increasing access to mental health care, minimizing risk factors and boosting research into prevention programs.

But it is the gun safety element -- described as an "unprecedented focus" by the White House -- that is garnering the most attention and could prove to be the most controversial, since gun advocates routinely link discussion of firearms dangers to Second Amendment rights.

In a message accompanying the plan, President Joe Biden called for a "public health strategy that unites us around a common mission to reduce military and veteran suicide."

"We increasingly know what works, whether it's ensuring that firearms are stored safely, expanding access to suicide hotlines and mental health providers, or sending caring letters to people after a crisis," he wrote.

In 2019, nearly 24,000 suicide deaths, or about 70% of total suicides in the United States, used a firearm, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics.

Meanwhile, suicides among service members and veterans continue at troubling rates. In 2020, 580 service members died by suicide, compared with 504 the previous year, according to a Pentagon report released last month. Between 64% and 80% of suicides were carried out by firearms.

In September, the VA said 6,261 veterans died by suicide in 2019, down by 399 from 2018. But the suicide rate for veterans -- 31.6 per 100,000 -- still far outpaced the rate for non-veterans -- 16.8 recorded per 100,000. Firearms were used in about 70% of veteran suicides in 2019.

"Suicide crises are often brief, so strategies that create 'time and space' between a person in crisis and their access to a firearm are lifesaving," the White House said Tuesday.

The VA has already ramped up education efforts on firearm safety and gun storage in recent months, including launching a public health campaign during Suicide Prevention Month in September that included public service announcements.

"We are gearing our messaging and campaign towards safety. Safety, in this context, is defined as time and space between person, firearm and ammunition," Matthew Miller, executive director of the VA's suicide prevention program, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee in September. "Ten to 20 minutes can be life-saving."

According to the White House road map released Tuesday, the "lethal means safety" campaign that the DoD, VA and other agencies are being tasked with creating will involve public service announcements; ads on social media and search engines; toolkits developed with industry partners, as appropriate, to amplify calls to action; multi-state maps of where people can safely store firearms outside the home; and lethal means safety training opportunities for counselors, crisis responders, health care professionals, family members and others.

The administration also plans to "significantly increase" lethal means safety training for VA Community Care Network providers and expand the VA's Safety Planning in the Emergency Department (SPED) program, which aims to create safety plans for at-risk veterans, into community health care systems.

Despite the lack of details from agencies on what new things they will do after the White House's rollout, leading congressional Democrats hailed the Biden administration's efforts to combat military and veteran suicides.

"Today's announcement makes it clear that President Biden is committed to backing up his priorities with action, and I look forward to working with the administration to pass many of these proposals in our upcoming mental health legislative package," House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said in a statement. "As long as even one veteran dies by suicide each day, our work will not be finished."

If you are a service member or veteran who needs help, it is available 24/7 at the Veterans and Military Crisis Line, 800-273-8255 (press 1), by texting 838255, or through the online chat function at www.veteranscrisisline.net.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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