Addressing Long-Standing Veteran Suicide Problem With New Approaches

Nov. 8, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

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The suicide rate among veterans is consistently higher than the general population, but recent efforts in Nebraska are putting a much bigger spotlight on the issue.

This story is part of our ongoing reporting project Nebraska: State of Mental Health.

A sunny weeknight at a coffee shop in downtown Lincoln might not be the place you’d expect to find a mental health support group — but that’s because this group is unique.

"I served in the United States Air Force from 2002 to 2006. Following that, I transitioned into the Air National Guard from 2006 to 2010," said Adam Armstrong. "And I love what I get to do."

Armstrong co-founded the Buddy Check program in 2015. The first meeting of veterans in Grand Island has grown into 11 groups, including in Scottsbluff, Broken Bow, and Kearney. They meet once a month to socialize, drink coffee, eat pizza, whatever — it’s just a chance to be together.

"It's great, because we'd run into people that were stationed at the same place, but 40 years apart," he said.

Mental health may not come up at all during these meetings, but the stated mission is to reduce veteran suicide. The risk for suicide is about 22% higher among veterans when compared to U.S. non-veteran adults, after adjusting for differences in age and sex.

"We're not asking you to come out for yourself, we're asking you to come out to support your brothers and sisters," Armstrong said. "So you're not having to admit that you need help, you just show up and have a good time and visit and catch up with people that have similar experiences, similar mindset."

Bruce Trautwein has served in the Marine Corps, the National Guard, and the Army Reserve. He used to drive to Seward for Buddy Check meetings, until the group in Lincoln starting meeting regularly.

"Someone who has never served has never developed the brotherhood," Trautwein said. "You fought with me, you're my brother. I'm sorry, I get a little emotional. No matter where you serve...doesn't make any difference. We help each other."

About 20 veterans die by suicide every day. And as self-organized groups like this pop up, it’s still difficult to get care from the Veterans Administration, despite a lot of progress in recent years.

A handful of veterans attended a town hall at the VA Hospital in Omaha recently. It was a rare chance to meet officials face-to-face and bring up any complaints or questions.


A Veteran asks a question at a Town Hall meeting in Omaha. (Becca Costello, NET News)

Staff seemed receptive to feedback. Several gave out their cell phone numbers to veterans who say they’ve been waiting days, weeks or even months to hear back from someone about an issue.

But fewer than 20 veterans were in the room that night – out of the estimated 130,000 veterans in the state. Most don’t have the luxury to meet someone in person – like TJ in North Platte who asked this question while watching a live stream of the town hall online.

"Why is it so hard to contact the office? I don’t want to have to call and go through Omaha then go on hold to be transferred to North Platte. I can literally drive there in the amount of time that I call," he said.

In an effort to decrease wait times, last year’s Mission Act was expanded over the summer so more veterans could get care from a community provider instead of the VA.

The Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System made almost 38,000 referrals to community care in fiscal year 2019.

It helps, but Christopher Banks, Director of VA Care in the Community in this region, admits there are problems.

"It opened up the doors for our veterans to get seen closer to home," Banks said. "And you can imagine that the volume has been pretty high for our team, and some of the things we’ve had to do is to adapt that volume."

Meanwhile, the rate of suicides per 100,000 Veterans has grown over the past ten years.

State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue is pushing for the state to do more with her proposed Veteran Bill of Rights.

It’s a wide-ranging bill, but one of Blood’s primary goals is to collect more information about veteran suicide.

"We're not asking questions like what branch of the military do they serve in? And what job were they employed in once they returned to civilian life?" Blood said. "Because imagine that, if we had decades of that information, how we're serving the veterans would be very different, wouldn't it? But we don't have that information."

The bill would require a detailed report on veteran suicide deaths in Nebraska each year. It also requires hiring up to eight full-time Veteran Navigators to help with things like accessing mental health treatment.

But there’s an underlying problem: about 40% of Nebraska veterans aren’t registered with the VA. And those unregistered veterans are at even higher risk for suicide.

Nebraska is part of a pilot program through the VA Midwest Health Care Network to reach more people.

"We are building suicide prevention coalitions out in communities, which is unheard of for the VA," said Gina Moulas, one of ten specialists in a five-state region working on the pilot project. They’ll work with community leaders, like county health departments, to expand the reach.

Nancy Sprott is still settling in to a new position at the Nebraska Department of Veteran Affairs. She became the first Director of Behavioral Health and Outreach earlier this year.

Nancy Sprott is the first Director of Behavioral Health and Outreach for the Nebraska Department of Veteran Affairs. (Becca Costello, NET News)

"My goal has been to do a state assessment of what the services are for veterans, both within the VA, but most importantly, what's in the community," she said.

Sprott spent more than three months on the road, meeting with community partners across the state. She’s encouraged by the initial results, but says one major gap is in the panhandle.

"It's a big travel distance for veterans, for services and for those working suicide prevention," Sprott said.

It’s just one of many barriers that keep veterans from seeking out help. And that’s exactly why Adam Armstrong helped start Buddy Check four years ago.

"We see a lot of veterans going unserved, or unwilling to be served," Armstrong said. "And so by starting this as a social aspect, where there are no expectations, there are no agendas, there are no dues, we just want you to know that you have a spot and that as fellow veterans, we still care about you."

Check back for more reporting from Nebraska: State of Mental Health on air and online.