MONTGOMERY — Governor Kay Ivey announced Friday a new statewide suicide prevention initiative for Service Members, Veterans, and their Families (SMVF).
Governor Ivey was joined at the Alabama State Capitol by members of Alabama’s Challenge for Preventing Suicide Among SMVF to introduce the initiative, which 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 Department of Rehabilitation Services, 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, which share a significant overlap in goals and team membership. The efforts were aligned in March 2021 through HJR 28, which also extended the Alabama Task Force on Veterans’ Suicide created by HJR 151 through the last legislative day of the 2022 Regular Session.
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 well-established 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.”
To begin the program, the Governor’s Challenge team attended webinars on subjects including outreach to rural veterans, garnering policy support, community collaboration, safe messaging, strategic communications, and engaging veterans at risk. Governor’s Challenge objectives include:
- Implementing promising, best, and evidence-based practices to prevent and reduce suicide
- Engage with city, county, and state stakeholders to enhance and align local and state-wide suicide prevention efforts
- Understand the issues surrounding suicide prevention for SMVF
- Increase knowledge about the challenges and lessons learned in implementing best policies and practices by using state-to-state and community-to-community sharing
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.