The Senate veterans' affairs committee got an early progress report this week on a newly established program. Created by a new law, the program aims to help veterans struggling with their mental health.
The numbers are grim: The latest report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reveals an average of almost 18 veteran suicides per day in 2018.
Although the department has not yet complied pandemic-era veteran suicide data, officials say early indicators suggest no significant increases in suicide attempts or deaths.
“However, the long-term impact and the rest of the data remain unknown," says David Carroll, who leads the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.
Carroll was one of several experts who appeared Wednesday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs. All of them agreed that veterans are not immune to the mental health challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year, Congress passed the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act. Signed into law by former president Donald Trump, the bill was named after a former Navy SEAL and Montana resident who took his own life in 2018.
Matt Kuntz, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Montana, was a friend of Hannon's.
“It is a really multifaceted bill," Kuntz said.
The law allocates upwards of $177 million over the next five years to state and local projects providing veterans with suicide prevention services. The projects range from increasing VA telehealth services to implementing new hiring rules that fill mental health staffing gaps at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
What Montana’s share of the funding will be is not yet clear.
Kuntz told MTPR he is excited by one particular provision: One piece of the law requires the VA to detail the rollout of a program helping suicidal veterans who are seeking care at emergency departments or urgent care centers.
“And if they're not deemed to be necessitating inpatient care at that time, then it processes them out and then they are able to get several follow-up calls when they are back home to ensure that they integrate into care in their communities," Kuntz explained.
Staying in contact with these patients after discharge is effective suicide prevention work, he said.
Although Hannon's Act is reaching its six-month mark, some parts of program are going better than others — and some of the services are behind schedule.
As Kuntz puts it, the purpose of Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs committee was not to see how the program has landed but rather how it is taking off.
Committee Chair Jon Tester, D-Montana, said he is keeping close tabs on the program's implementation.