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2012 DoD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference

June 22, 2012
Washington, DC

There’s no more important work than taking care of those who protect our nation. Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line for us, and we need to be there for them when they return.

We also know that our troops have carried an especially heavy burden over the last decade.  There have been longer deployments, more frequent redeployments, and shorter breaks in between.  Stress has been more constant.  And tragically, we’ve seen suicide rates continue to rise among service members and veterans.

The Defense Department and the VA have taken this crisis on and made it a top priority. But the responsibility for meeting the mental health needs of our service members, veterans and their families lies with our entire country. When the people who fight and defend our freedom need help, we all have an obligation to make sure they get it.

That’s why in 2010, I joined Secretary Gates and Secretary of the Army John McHugh to launch the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Our aim was to make suicide prevention a national priority, especially for service members and veterans.

In our department, that has meant working to make life-saving services and supports more accessible and more responsive to people in crisis.

For example, as you know, our department operates the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number – a national network of crisis call centers for those experiencing a suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Last fall, the Lifeline received its three millionth call.

Knowing that we had this large and effective network already in place, the VA reached out to us in 2007, and we formed a partnership. Today, service members, veterans, and their families who call the Lifeline can press “1’ to be connected to a central VA call center that provides specialized crisis services.  The Veterans Crisis Line -- or “Military Crisis Line,” as it is known within the services -- is also available in a number of European countries.

And in just the first 5 months of this year, over 85,000 Lifeline calls were answered by the Veterans Crisis Line – more than 550 calls a day.

Our department has also organized a series of Policy Academies that bring together community, Guard and Reserve, and veterans officials from different states to team up and share best practices.

One great example is Operation Immersion, an initiative that brings community-based health care providers to a National Guard base where they live like soldiers for a few days. They eat MREs, run drills, and do P-T. And in between, they meet with soldiers of every rank and their families to hear about military culture, life on the frontlines, and what it’s like to come back home.

This gives health care providers an in-depth understanding of what service members and their families go through and can help them provide better care.

Operation Immersion started in Tennessee, but when organizers brought it to one of our Policy Academies as a best practice, it sparked a lot of interest.

So we flew several representatives from other states to Tennessee where they experienced Operation Immersion for themselves. And now, a number of them have adapted it to their own communities. We want to help these effective programs spread throughout the country.

Our ultimate goal is to work in support of states, together with DoD and the VA, to create a system where there is no wrong door for any service member, veteran or their family seeking help – and no matter who you go to for help, you get the care you need.

To do that, we’re educating community-based doctors and nurses about how to ask patients if they’ve served or seen combat, how to screen for PTSD, and how best to refer patients to the VA and TriCare.

We’re giving state officials the technical support to create accessible, integrated databases they can use to connect service members and veterans to local services from child care and employment to local chaplains and peer support networks.      

And we’re helping state and local agencies collect and share data so that we can get services in the communities where they’re needed most.

The thing that ties all of these efforts together is our commitment to caring for the whole person. We do not make any distinction between behavioral health and health.  And I know that all of you feel the same way. 

When I was Governor of Kansas, I worked with Major General Tod Bunting, who was then the adjutant general of the Kansas Army and Air National Guard, to address the mental health needs of our returning military men and women. 

He often talked about how, when a soldier is going to take his Bradley Tank into the field, he runs a check on the vehicle.  He does things like checking the treads, making sure the guns are operational, and making sure they have the correct ammo.  And we would never send that machine into the field unless everything was right.  But we weren’t taking the same care with the service men and women who make up our military. 

In this Administration, we’re committed to ensuring that we meet the full needs of our service members and veterans.  And that means taking care of the whole person, their physical health and their mental health.

I know this is exactly the important, life-saving work that so many of you do every day. And we are committed to giving you the support to keep doing it and doing well. Thank you all for sharing your experience and expertise here this week.

Our men and women in uniform, veterans, and their families have given so much to defend this nation.  By giving them the support they need to stay healthy and get help when they need it, we honor their service and fulfill our shared responsibility.