As we wind down this year’s Suicide Prevention Month, I am reminded that veterans encompass a wide array of individuals throughout this country, and that we must protect and care for all of them. And, as essential extensions of veterans, we must care for their families. These tenets of care – to unequivocally serve those who have served us – remain a primary reason why my colleagues and I are so proud to work for the Cohen Veterans Network (CVN).
On September 15, I was honored to represent CVN at the U.S. Capitol where I spoke on a panel discussing “bad paper” (viewable via two Facebook videos in this blog post) and the effects of less-than-honorable discharges on veterans. Hosted by Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the two-hour panel focused on discussing the flaws of the “bad paper” process, the effects of “bad paper” on veterans, the barriers to essential care, and what the community is now doing to support these veterans. I was asked to speak on the last point.
What are we doing to support these veterans who separate from service and are ineligible for VA care due to less-than-honorable discharge? The answer is not much, and that is a travesty.
Of all of our post-9/11 veterans, 6.5% or 125,000 veterans are excluded from VA eligibility based on other-than-honorable discharges. As we continue to learn, a preponderance of these veterans were discharged from service based on mental health concerns (PTSD, depression, suicidal thoughts). Fortunately, the government is beginning to take notice, and it’s about time. In July of this year, Secretary Shulkin and the VA announced that – for the first time – veterans with other-than-honorable discharge could receive up to 3 months of “emergency mental health care” if needed. This is certainly better than nothing, but it’s not enough.
As my friend Dr. Rajeev Ramchand stated at the beginning of the panel, the only way to help our veterans across the board is to ensure that they are “poised for success.” However, as we learn from veterans and their families who sustain these types of discharges, we as a community do very little to ensure that these veterans have a solid landing. Instead, they are discharged with no support from the VA or other organizations and are denied benefits, health care, and most other transition care outside of an emergency mental health situation. We need to stave off these emergencies by getting veterans the care they and their families need when they need it – not just when they are in crisis. Why do we continue to just focus on the “emergency” or the “crisis?” It’s time to get in front of it.
One thing we continue to learn in the suicide prevention field is that we need to go “upstream” when we talk about suicide prevention. We need to “get to the left” of the crisis—that is, intervene during periods of time when people need non-crisis care. For instance, veterans and spouses may seek marital therapy for any number of reasons. This may not be a crisis, but – as we know – relationship problems and break-ups are a primary reason veterans and others eventually attempt suicide. Case management may seem like a relatively mundane intervention, but helping a veteran with finding a job or finding resources to cope with a legal issue may be the intervention that, down the road, eliminates the possibility of a crisis which then eliminates the possibility of a suicide attempt.
We must care for all veterans and their families, regardless of discharge status. At CVN, all veterans and family members are encouraged and welcome to receive our care no matter what. This is extraordinary. And it shouldn’t be. Still, to be at the forefront of organizations that are providing mental health care across veterans’ lives as opposed to just during crises will, in the end, save lives.
By Caitlin Thompson,
CVN Vice President, Risk Management & Program Evaluation