COVID-19 and Veteran Suicide Prevention
with Jennifer Dane of the Modern Military Association of America
Isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic poses a mental health threat to many, including military and veteran communities. A national effort is underway to intervene and provide support to all communities of veterans — including those in the LGBTQ community.
Jennifer Dane, Executive Director of the Modern Military Association of America, discusses nationwide efforts to combat a rising suicide rate among our nation’s military service members and veterans.
November 10, 2020
Anderson: Social distancing is seen as the most effective tool the U.S. has to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but mental health experts warn that the isolation combined with the stress of coping with the pandemic could really create a perfect storm for people faced with mental health issues. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens the mental health of many in the U.S., and that includes military and veteran communities. Joining me to talk about that is Jennifer Dane. She is the executive director of the Modern Military Association of America. And, Jennifer, I'm gonna jump right in here. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie says that suicide prevention is his number one priority. He said that since he's taken the position. Why is that? What's going on in the population of veterans versus the general population when it comes to rates of suicide?
Dane: Yes. Thank you for letting me be here. This is a really critical issue, and I'm so honored to be here to speak about it. We know that the general population has about 45 thousand suicides on average per year, and have those, about 20% of them is made up of the veteran population. And we know that this is a critical issue, not just because of the pandemic, but it has been over the course of decades now. In my personal experience, during my time in the Air Force, I did have several friends that had committed suicide. This issue is near and dear to my heart because it is facing our service members and our veteran communities. And we do know that currently there's 20.7 million veterans that are listed on the Veteran Health Administration and only 10 million of those reach out, and they get services from the VA Health Care. So the critical lack of resources from the VA to those veterans is one of the areas that is really lacking. But what we're seeing is that this increase... COVID has perpetuated an increase in the suicide rate because of the lack of resources, services, and even simply support for those communities.
Anderson: So perfect that you mention that because I did want to ask you about a new national strategy that you're involved with that aids with some of these issues, that offers mental support to all communities of veterans. It comes in the form of challenges. Explain to us what's going on?
Dane: So, yes, we were really fortunate. Our organization was asked by the governor of Maryland to participate in their challenge, which brought together inner agencies and other organizations together just to have one mind to say, this is what we're facing, and this is what we're doing. The VA did have a challenge put out from 2018 to 2028 that really wanted to the look at the issue of veteran suicide and really eliminate it as closely as they could. So we were asked to join the table and bring our perspective not only as a military and veteran organization but also our expertise on LGBTQ issues for the military and veteran community. And bringing those two perspectives -- the intersectionalities that exist -- are critical to how we look at veteran suicide and how we mitigate that in different realms because there are so many layers, and those layers create different viewpoints, and so we were able to put our views of what we really truly believe the VA needs to look at in the health and human services to really mitigate this veteran suicide and the decrease of what that looks like to our communities so that we can be safe, healthy, and happy moving forward.
Anderson: So, within the population of veterans, there are of course subcategories. And as you just mentioned, you deal with LGBTQ veterans, but you also deal with a wide range of folks. What are some of the groups that you deal with, and what are some of the challenges that they are facing not only as a result of Coronavirus, but just day-to-day?
Dane: Absolutely. So one of our big subpopulations obviously are the LGBTQ veterans. So whenever "Don't ask, don't tell" was put into place, we had, and before that, even from World War II until post-"Don't ask, don't tell," we knew that there was about 110,000 veterans -- that were discharged dishonorably. And what that means is they do not have access to VA Health Care, they do not have access to the GI Bill, and they are really left out in the dark, just simply because they were identified as gay or lesbian or bisexual through the military. And so, since Coronavirus has impacted our population of LGBTQ veterans -- have faced it even more significantly. Because they have this dishonorable discharge or other than honorable, they can't have access to health care. Like, that's really important and the resources that are really in place that help aid with any type of mental health services. So we've seen an increase in calls asking us to upgrade discharges, which couldn't simply be done by a stroke of a pen because of discriminatory policies that were implemented close to 10 years ago today. So that's one of the biggest things that has been impacting us. That the critical miss of a policy that was put into place years ago based on discriminatory policies is something that we're still trying to mitigate today. And some of the things that they are facing is not only the mental health crisis but also the homelessness and food insecurities and even just access to, you know, simply existing as an LGBTQ American in today's society.
Anderson: Jennifer, you mentioned earlier that the Maryland governor actually invited you to be a part of shaping what these challenges now look like. How important was that for you and your organization, given the population that you serve?
Dane: It was critically important. Whenever any voice that's diverse -- they're included in the conversation, it's really important that we come to the table 'cause there were many years where we were ostracized and not invited. So just having the ability to put our perspectives and our face in front of these policies in this challenge makes it so much worth doing because our community does matter, and our voices matter, and just having the ability to share that is so critical, especially in today's society.
Anderson: Yeah, the ability to share is a critical, so share your website with us because people are certainly gonna want to know more about your organization.
Dane: Absolutely. And for more information about what we do, our resources, and our support, please visit modernmilitary.org.
Anderson: Jennifer Dane, Executive Director of Modern Military Association of America, thank you so much for being here.
Dane: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.