WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump released a long-awaited plan Wednesday to address the persistently high number of suicides by veterans, with initiatives including firearm safety, wellness programs at workplaces and new barriers near railroads and bridges.
As part of the $53 million, two-year effort, a public messaging campaign starting in the coming weeks is intended to raise awareness about suicide at a time of increased social distancing and isolation during a pandemic.
The plan also awards grants to community programs outside the Department of Veterans Affairs, building on Trump’s expansion of the private-sector Veterans Choice health program.
“My administration is marshaling every resource to stop the crisis of veterans suicide and protect our nation’s most treasured heroes,” Trump said at a White House event. He said he looked forward “to big, big progress very, very fast.”
Trump established a federal task force last year to develop a way to lower veterans' suicides. Currently, about 20 veterans die by suicide each day, about 1.5 times higher than those who have not served in the military. The government says about 14 of those 20 were not under VA care, pointing to a need for improved outreach.
It was unclear, however, how much of the plan could result in immediate concrete action, especially in a presidential election year. Much of the effort will need congressional action, as well as cooperation from governors and local groups juggling priorities of public safety and health in a pandemic.
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee whose son Beau spent a year in Iraq with the Army, has said he will focus in particular on reducing veterans’ suicide rate.
“Three and one half years into his term, Donald Trump has suddenly discovered that veterans’ suicide is a crisis," said Biden spokesman Jamal Brown. "We must substantially address the inequities that contribute to suicide risk, pursue common sense firearm safety measures, and ensure a robust system for responding to individuals in crisis while also improving support for the well-being of our veterans — they deserve no less.”
Veterans' groups and some lawmakers said Trump's plan doesn't go far enough.
Jeremy Butler, the CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, applauded the effort but said he was disappointed by a lack of direct action to address root causes, such as fixing barriers to education and jobs, improving housing opportunities and expanding access to health care.
“All these are things are stressors that exacerbate mental health conditions and lead to a point of crisis,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Mark Takano, who leads the House Veterans Affairs' Committee, said he will propose legislation to address veterans' mental health needs. Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., are planning separate bipartisan legislation.
“Tepid calls for more research, interagency coordination, and meek public education campaigns won’t do enough to end this crisis,” Takano said.
White House officials expressed concern about an even greater risk of suicide because of economic strain and isolation stemming from social distancing restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We seek to reach every corner of our nation, leaving no one behind,” according to the 66-page plan, which was initially set for release in March.
Officials say the public awareness campaign will be similar in scope to those against drunken driving and will focus on dispelling myths, such as it being dangerous to talk openly about issues of mental health and suicide.
Among those leading the effort is Vice President Mike Pence's wife, Karen Pence, who said it was an opportune time “because we are all dealing with anxiety.”
“It’s my goal to help take away the stigma of mental health,” Mrs. Pence said. “We are giving them hope. We want them to know, and anyone who is considering suicide, that there are people who want to help.”
The plan urges increased education on gun safety, such as “voluntary safe storage,” and counseling and limiting access to prescription drugs if a veteran is seen at a higher risk of mental distress. VA data suggest that limited health care access, gun ownership and opioid addiction are risk factors for suicide.
It also set a goal of getting employers representing 25% of the national workforce to commit to prioritizing mental health and wellness programs in the workplace. So far, organizations representing more than 6 million employees have signed a pledge to do so.
Longer term, the task force proposed broader safety measures to deter suicide. Parking garages, bridges, railroads and other high risk areas could be fitted with jump barriers, crisis call boxes and suicide prevention signs.
The effort will also aim to better coordinate research on suicide prevention across agencies, including Veterans Affairs, Defense and Homeland Security. It's all part of Trump's effort in an election year to fulfill a campaign pledge to improve health care for veterans.
Veterans overall have strongly backed Trump throughout his presidency, though views vary widely by party, gender and age, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of 2018 midterm voters. In particular, younger veterans and women generally were more skeptical of Trump.
More recently, Trump has faced increased strain with the Pentagon and former military officials over his handling of demonstrations against racism following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.