Gov. Ivey, lawmakers align for new veterans suicide prevention initiative

September is National Suicide Awareness Month.
September is National Suicide Awareness Month.(WAFB)
Updated: May. 14, 2021 at 1:30 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Governor Kay Ivey announced Friday a new statewide suicide prevention initiative for Service Members, Veterans, and their Families (SMVF).

The initiative aims to create an impactful, long-term outcome across the state. In attendance were members from the Alabama Legislature and representatives from the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs, Alabama Department of Mental Health, Alabama Department of Public Health, Alabama National Guard, and non-profits including Still Serving Veterans and Veterans Recovery Resources.

“Once someone has served our great nation, we owe it to these great men and women to help them enter civilian life,” Governor Ivey said. “I can think of no better way to say, ‘thank you for your service’ than ensuring these heroes and their families have access to mental health resources when in need.”

Alabama’s Challenge is an aligned effort between the legislative Task Force on Veterans’ Suicide and the Governor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among SMVF.

HJR 151, which established the legislative Task Force on Veterans’ Suicide, was proposed by Rep. Neil Rafferty and passed in May 2019. Rep. Rafferty, a Marine veteran, saw a need to investigate the causes of and prevention of suicides among veterans after a friend and fellow Marine veteran died by suicide.

“I am encouraged by the momentum of this effort here in Alabama to confront the disparate impact of mental health challenges that many in the veteran community face, even years after they last wore the uniform,” said Rep. Rafferty. “As a Marine veteran who has been personally affected by the devastation following a fellow veteran taking their own life, I understand the importance and immediacy of addressing this issue head on.”

A continuing stigma with mental illness is a tragic reality for veterans, with approximately 17 veterans in the U.S. dying by suicide per day. In Alabama, the veteran suicide rate is even higher than the national veteran average and significantly higher than the national civilian average.

Recently released data shows nearly 18% of those who died by suicide in Alabama are veterans, though only 9.1% of Alabamians have served. Male veterans die by suicide at a rate 1.3 times higher than civilian counterparts, and for women veterans it is 2.1 times higher.

This crisis led to the creation of Alabama’s Challenge, an initiative targeted to inform SMVF of resources to ultimately prevent suicide.

In early 2020, Alabama was invited by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to participate in the Governor’s Challenge. The program has three specific focus areas:

  • Identification and screening of SMVF who might be at risk
  • Promote connectedness and improve care transitions
  • Lethal means safety and safety planning

“The Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs is honored to be partnered with Governor Ivey’s Office, the Alabama Legislature, the Alabama Department of Mental Health, the Alabama Department of Public Health, and countless other organizations for Alabama’s Challenge,” said Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Kent Davis. “Suicide prevention is an important conversation within the veteran community, and it takes everyone to battle this tragic reality. We are looking forward to partnering with great resources around the state as we continue to raise awareness about veteran suicide prevention.”

As the initiative continues to grow statewide, a focal point will be hot spots for suicide in Alabama, which will be identified through “heat maps.” Branding campaigns are being created and implemented for Alabama’s Challenge and public and private sector partners are being contacted to provide further resources for suicide prevention.

“The Alabama Department of Mental Health (ADMH) is honored to be a strategic partner in the veterans suicide prevention challenge. This month for Mental Health Awareness Month, and every day, we continue to share important prevention and treatment resources and information to end stigma surrounding mental illness for veterans and all Alabamians,” said Beverly Johnson, Director of the Office of Substance Use Prevention, ADMH.

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