Preventing suicide: What VA wants you to know
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Preventing suicide: What VA wants you to know

With September being National Suicide Prevention Month, The American Legion recently interviewed Dr. Matthew A. Miller, VA’s acting director for suicide prevention, about efforts to reduce the veteran suicide rate.

The American Legion: VA recently shared with American Legion members the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide. What is the strategy’s role in VA’s suicide prevention program?

Miller: All of VA’s suicide prevention efforts are guided by the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide. Published in 2018, this long-term strategy expands beyond focusing solely on crisis intervention and provides a framework for identifying priorities, organizing efforts, and focusing national attention and community resources, like The American Legion, to prevent suicide among veterans through a broad, public approach with an emphasis on comprehensive, community-based engagement.

TAL: What is the public health approach to combatting veteran suicide?

Miller: At its core, the public health approach is about ensuring suicide prevention is a part of every aspect of veterans’ lives, not just their interactions with VA. We know that VA care is not the right choice for every veteran, for various reasons, and want to be respectful and cognizant of those choices. To save lives, VA needs the support of supporters across sectors. We need to ensure that multiple systems are working in a coordinated way to reach veterans wherever they live, work and thrive.

Our philosophy is that there is no wrong door to care. That is why we are focused on universal, non-VA community interventions. Preventing suicide among the nation’s 20 million veterans cannot be the sole responsibility of VA — it requires a nationwide effort. As there is no single cause of suicide, no single organization can tackle suicide prevention alone.

One example of this “all-hands-on-deck” approach is the recently signed Executive Order 13861.

The President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) Executive Order focuses on improving the quality of life of our nation’s veterans and developing a national public health roadmap to lower the veteran suicide rate using a government approach and integrating public and private entities to work across the nation.

With a goal of eliminating suicide, everyone has a role to play: families, communities, Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), state and local leaders, medical care, and others. 

TAL: What should Legionnaires know about Suicide Prevention Month?

Miller: Although VA and our supporters work year-round to prevent veteran suicide, Suicide Prevention Month (SPM) is a national effort every September dedicated to raising suicide prevention awareness.

This year, VA will expand its #BeThere campaign, empowering communities to raise awareness about mental health and suicide prevention and to make sure veterans and their families know about the resources available to them.

It can be difficult to talk about mental health, and people may not know what they can do to help prevent suicide. Understanding how to support a veteran is the first step in suicide prevention, so we want to create champions who will answer the call to #BeThere. Simple actions such as asking how someone is feeling, or inviting them to meet for coffee, can help them feel less alone and a sense of belonging.

For more information, Legionnaires can visit, which includes resources for making a difference, a message generator tool for connecting with loved ones using safe messaging, and prepared social media content for spreading the word. The site is just one of the many new resources we will be sharing with American Legion members during Suicide Prevention Month, and we hope you will use these resources to help us prevent suicide in your communities.

TAL: We hear a lot about the 20 veteran lives lost to suicide every day. Is this statistic accurate?

Miller: In 2016, we lost 6,010 veterans to suicide. Every one of those deaths was one too many. Although the 20 per day statistic is often used, it only provides a partial picture of the suicide data VA tracks. It also represents suicide among all who have served, including current servicemembers.

To better understand veteran suicide as a whole, we need to look at trends among the broader veteran population and veteran subgroups, over time. This helps us to identify complex risk factors that may have an impact on veterans, to develop appropriate programs and resources, and to better measure our progress. This is another example of how critical it is that our partners, especially our VSO partners, embrace the public health approach to help us reach veterans outside the VA system of care.

Suicide is preventable and treatment works. Responsibly storing firearms, safely disposing of old medications, and encouraging everyone we know to seek help when they are going through an emotional crisis can save lives. Every day, people across the nation reach out for support and live healthy, productive lives. Data about how many veterans die by suicide does not capture the experiences of the vast majority of the 20 million U.S. veterans, who are thriving members of our communities.

TAL: How can a caregiver or friend help a veteran who may be at risk of suicide?

There are many ways that caregivers, friends and others can support veterans:

  •  Add the Veterans Crisis Line number to your phone contacts. The crisis line connects veterans and their families and friends with qualified VA responders. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 for veterans, text to 838255, or chat online at to receive confidential crisis intervention and support available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
  • Take and share S.A.V.E. training. A free training video, found at, helps anyone recognize suicide risk factors and warning signs.
  • Share the #BeThere call to action. Share with your fellow veterans, their families and friends, and your social media followers. Add the #BeThere campaign hashtag, #BeThere logo, and webpage to your email signature block. Make a pledge to #BeThere for veterans today and every day.
  • Watch and share the VA public health videoVA’s goal is to prevent suicide among all veterans, including those who do not and may never, come to VA for care. To do that, VA has adopted a public health approach to suicide prevention – driven by data and best practices – that looks beyond the individual to involve peers, family members and the community. This video explains the strategy and potential impact of the public health approach. 
  •  Share Make the Connection. Visit to discover an online resource that connects veterans, their family members and friends, and other supporters with information and solutions to issues affecting their lives.
  • Share the Be There for Veterans PSA. This inspirational video, which is narrated by actor and filmmaker Tom Hanks, issues a call to action that underscores VA’s public health approach to preventing veteran suicide, which encourages everyone to make suicide prevention their business.
  • Be a suicide prevention advocate on social media. Download and share VA’s Social Media Safety Toolkit for Veterans, Their Families, and Friends, which equips individuals with the knowledge they need to respond to social media posts that indicate a veteran may be having thoughts of suicide. 
  • Download the Suicide Prevention Month toolkit. Visit to download Suicide Prevention Month resources, and share them throughout the month through your website, social media, email blasts and employee newsletters.
  • Download and share suicide prevention educational materials all year. Visit and include these educational materials on your website, in email blasts and in employee newsletters.