Mental Health Awareness Month


It goes without saying that speedy and ongoing access to mental health care is extremely important for military members and veterans. Often, mental-health illness is overlooked or hushed away. In light of May as Mental Health Awareness Month, we’ve detailed some mental-health initiatives.

Suicide Prevention:

A Department of Veterans Affairs study published in 2012 found that approximately 22 veterans take their lives every day. Establishing a new standard of care including more individualized treatment and therapy is the next step to tackle this staggering statistic. In 2007, the VA launched the Veterans Crisis Line, a 24/7 confidential support group. In February, the agency held a call to action suicide prevention summit to brainstorm new ideas for outreach, prevention and care.

In suicide prevention, firearm safety is key. The VA has sent suicide-prevention coordinators to hold firearm-safety training, distribute free gun locks and share the importance of securing guns in homes. Read more about it on their blog.

SMI Re-Engage:

Veterans with serious mental illness often have multiple health issues and are at a higher risk of dying from lack of care.

In 2012, the Serious Mental Illness Treatment Resource and Evaluation Center and the Veterans Health Administration launched SMI Re-Engage. The program targets veterans with serious mental illness who have visited a VA facility but haven’t been back in more than a year. Facilities reach out directly to these patients after a lapse of 12 months without treatment.

From March 2012 to March 2016, facilities attempted to contact 18,293 veterans. Thirty percent were contacted. Seventy percent were unreachable. Of those contacted, 24 percent returned to care within four months. Regular and frequent contact, and returning to care is great, but preventing this gap of care in the first place is more important.

Volunteers of America:

According to Caroline Meehan, Program and Research Manager for Volunteers of America, two peer programs have been developed to help veterans. The National Veterans Resource Squad consists of certified peer support specialists who are trained in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training and safeTALK suicide-alert systems. The Battle Buddy Bridge program started in Los Angeles and trains veterans as support specialists to help with housing, health care, family support and more. Both of these programs also provide mission-oriented work for veterans looking to give back after leaving the military.

Opioid Safety Initiative (OSI):

The goal of the VA’s 2013 Opioid Safety Initiative is to reduce the risk of opioid addiction and subsequent overdose deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 74 percent of overdose deaths are unintentional and 17 percent are suicides.

Other than reducing and improving opioid-prescription safety, an important part of OSI is its academic outreach. This service-oriented education gives health care professionals one-on-one techniques to help their patients. Former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said the program is designed to implement joint-pain management guidelines and encourage other medications and therapies instead of opioid prescriptions.

What is NGAUS doing?

NGAUS is working with bipartisan members in the House and Senate to expand access to mental-health care for National Guard members. Some legislative proposals include increasing the number of qualified mental-health professionals, allowing Guard members access to community-based mental-health-care providers, and increasing the use of mental-health-focused agencies such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Sarah Sontag is the NGAUS Legislative Administrative Assistant. She is originally from Iowa and has lived in D.C. for three years.

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