Mental illness among our nation’s veterans is a serious problem. Stemming from the strain of violent hostilities in Iraq, the prevalence of veterans with a service-connected disability has grown alarmingly high. As of 2006, 454,598 veterans had a service-connected disability due to a mental illness, and 20 percent of soldiers returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Perhaps most concerning is the fact that these men and women are at an elevated risk for suicide. Accounting for only 11% of the population, veterans represent nearly one in five suicide attempts in the entire United States. Suicide is the only cause of death that is statistically more likely to happen with a veteran than a non-veteran.
Clearly, many of our veterans are in crisis and need greater assistance. Perhaps if they had someone to turn to when the future seemed darkest — someone who had walked a mile in their boots – the number of suicides could be reduced.
In an effort to provide that voice at the end of the line when it seems all hope is lost, I have introduced legislation, the “Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline Act of 2007” (H.R. 2219). This bill would create a 24-hour national toll-free hotline to assist our nation’s veterans in crisis. Staffed by a team of professionals trained to work with members of the Armed Services, this peer-to-peer suicide prevention hotline would offer veterans contemplating suicide the ability to discretely speak to other veterans in their time of need.
Built on the successful “Helpline” model (the national suicide prevention hotline), and Cop2Cop, the New Jersey State Police peer support program, the Veterans Hotline would coordinate the resources of local crisis centers across the country through a competitive grant program administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Protecting the mental health of our veterans should be among our top priorities. When our soldiers return from battle, they deserve at least as much moral support as they got going in. We owe it to these brave men and women to make them as whole again as possible — both physically and mentally. This is one small way we can make a difference towards that goal.