Isakson: ‘We Will Reduce Rate of Suicide’
Pledges to continue supporting VA, community partners’ efforts to make mental health care more accessible for veterans
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, pledged to continue to support efforts by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and community organizations to reduce suicide in the veteran community during a hearing on mental health and veteran suicide prevention.
Isakson opened the hearing held on Wednesday, June 19, by reflecting on the recent 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion during World War II. He acknowledged that we owe our veterans everything and must work together to ensure we provide them with the care and support they have earned. Isakson also noted that the June 6 anniversary of D-Day was the one year mark of the VA MISSION Act being signed into law.
“[On D-Day], American soldiers, sailors, marines, and paratroopers went into France and then all of Europe and liberated the world from Adolf Hitler. There would be no democracy in the world today were it not for those men that fought for us on those days. Because the American soldier, the American military and the American Congress at the time had the fortitude and the guts to commit the money and the resources, we beat overwhelming odds and won,” said Isakson. “So this was the 75th anniversary of D-Day and invading France, and it was the first anniversary of trying to fix the VA delivery of health care,” through the enactment of the VA MISSION Act.
As the VA continues making positive strides in improving accessibility of care in the community, Isakson said a key area of VA health care that must still be addressed is mental health and preventing veteran suicide. On March 5, President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order, called the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS), to establish a cabinet-level task force responsible for creating a comprehensive strategy with federal, state and community leaders to engage the veteran community, improve resources and research and help prevent the epidemic of veteran suicide. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie is co-chair of the task force.
“Suicide is a terrible thing,” said Isakson. “I’ve experienced it in my own family, and it’s a terrible thing to go through for a family. It’s something you want to block out and not talk about. But the most important thing you can do is talk about it.”
Since 2010, the VA has operated the veterans crisis line, consisting of three call centers across the United States, including one in Atlanta. These call centers are designed to provide 24/7 suicide prevention and crisis intervention services for veterans. Isakson discussed the effectiveness of these call centers with Secretary Wilkie and VA Suicide Prevention Program Executive Director Dr. Keita Franklin.
At the hearing, Wilkie emphasized that these call centers answer approximately 1,700 calls a day with an average wait time of eight seconds, and the VA is able to provide same-day access to care as a result of the veterans crisis line.
“When I went out to the new [call center] that was established in Atlanta, I was astounded at how many calls came in and how rapid they were coming in,” said Isakson. “I assume that’s only gotten better, and from everything I read about suicide and accessibility in [terms of] mental health issues, the quicker a person who is in trouble or is at risk can make a direct contact with a trained, professional individual, that’s the best thing you can do to get somebody stabilized and not have the act of suicide take place before they get some help.”
In addition to resources available through the VA, veterans-oriented community organizations also provide services such as employment support, housing assistance, education, social connection and family counseling, which are critical additions to addressing a veteran’s mental health. By partnering with the VA, these organizations can provide a coordination hub for veterans in need of guidance or support.
“Sharing is critically important,” said Isakson. “The sharing of information [between veterans, partnering organizations and the VA], the willingness to share the information, and the ability to seek out that information can make all the difference in the world. You don’t need a situation of stigmas and stereotypes. What you need is opportunity and hope.”
“We understand that victories are not going to be fast or swift when you’re dealing with something like suicide,” he continued. “The better we do with making services accessible and ensuring our providers are equipped with proper training, the better it will be for our veterans. Over time, as we continue to address this subject, we will reduce the rate of suicide.”
Isakson ended the hearing by reaffirming the committee’s commitment to ensuring the VA and veteran-oriented community organizations have the tools and resources necessary to make mental health resources more accessible for veterans.
“We’re going to do everything to keep our committee [focused on] making the veteran’s system and the benefits of the veteran’s service to his country or her country [better], to get every benefit that they are supposed to get and the way that they need to get it, and that we’re helping people and saving their lives and they aren’t hurting people or keeping them away from the health care they need,” Isakson concluded.
The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is chaired by U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in the 116th Congress. Isakson is a veteran himself – having served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966-1972 – and has been a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs since he joined the Senate in 2005. Isakson’s home state of Georgia is home to more than a dozen military installations representing each branch of the armed services as well as nearly 700,000 veterans.