The release of the VA’s 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report brings to mind several questions. My mind, however, keeps coming back to the one that threads all the others together:

What’s changed? Short answer: not much.

Let’s look at a few key data points:

  • The report indicates a total of 6,435 veteran suicide deaths in 2018 - essentially the same total the VA reported for 2017 (6,399)
  • The report indicated a veteran suicide rate of 27.5 in 2018 - essentially the same percentage the VA reported for 2017 (27.3)
  • The report indicated that the average number of veteran suicides per day in 2018 was 17.6 - essentially the same average the VA reported in 2017 (17.5)

This isn’t acceptable. It’s certainly not an “anchor of hope,” as the report terms it. Who wants to tell 6,435 families that this trend is an “anchor of hope?!”

What we’re doing, as a nation, isn’t working. More of the same leads to more of the same. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.

To achieve a different - positive - result, we have to do something about it. Talking about the problem isn’t good enough.

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Unfortunately, we saw this coming two years ago. We saw it on the horizon, bearing down like a runaway train.

That’s why we hosted our first Disrupt Veteran Suicide Summit in December 2018, the year from which this report pulls its data.

That’s why we completely recalibrated our organization in 2019, convening a Scientific Advisory Council, developing a one-of-a-kind suicide intervention model, and scaling investment in everything from personnel to technology to training to acquisition marketing tactics.

That’s what we’re building at Stop Soldier Suicide. The blueprint of our DNA is right here in our Impact Report.

That, however, is just the beginning. We’re far from content with this progress. Making a tangible impact in the military suicide rate is going to take courageous organizations with audacious goals.

We happen to have one of those. We’re going to reduce the military suicide rate by 40% by 2030, saving roughly 2,400 lives each year over the next decade.

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One last point: If we continue down the path this report indicates we’re on, I shudder to think about the report we’ll see in a few years, when 2020 data becomes available.

The Associated Press has already reported that the military suicide rate has risen as much as 20% in the COVID era. We’re facing record unemployment, and the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute estimates that we lose upwards of 550 veterans to suicide for every 5% increase in the unemployment rate.

A tidal wave of mental health challenges is coming as a result of COVID, and I’m not sure our nation is equipped to stop it as things stand now.

Now, that data won’t be available for another few years. Does that mean we have a few years to get functioning suicide intervention programs in place? Hell no. That has to happen right now.

One more report like the one that was just released will be one more too many.

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This year’s VA report is many things. Unsurprising and uninspiring are among the descriptors that come to mind first.

If there’s an “anchor of hope,” it’s the fact that there are bold, courageous organizations that aren’t willing to let this continue; that won’t settle for more of the same.

Action. It’s going to take action. Not talk.

We have to press on with effective, actionable suicide intervention programs, guided by experts and validated with data.

We have to do it now, too, before “not much has changed” becomes the rubber stamp on the cover of the VA report for years to come.


Onward,
Chris Ford
United States Air Force (Ret.)
CEO, Stop Soldier Suicide