Every day, nationwide, an average of 20 veterans die by suicide.

Every week, a family in Maine loses a military sibling, parent, child or spouse to suicide.

Every year, our country loses about 400 more veterans to suicide than have died in combat since the war on terror began.

This is a national scandal — but it’s a preventable one, if we press our officials to forgo the usual lip service to veterans in favor of policies and actions that actually help them.

Veterans are about 20 percent more likely to kill themselves than are people who have never served in the military, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced late last week, citing the first-ever state-by-state VA data. Epidemiologist Rajeev Ramchand, who studies suicide for the Rand Corp., put it another way: He told the Associated Press that the suicide rate in every state is at least 1½ times higher for veterans than for nonveterans.

Maine’s veteran suicide rate isn’t significantly different from the national norm, the VA found. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have a problem. It’s obvious that we do. There’s no single, obvious solution. But another VA statistic — that 70 percent of the veterans who die by suicide had not been using VA health care — offers fresh information about where to direct state and federal resources.

For example, the VA earlier this year lifted a ban on access to mental health services by veterans with other-than-honorable discharges. While this decision doesn’t address other barriers to care, like the wait times and lack of staffing that have plagued VA care facilities nationwide, it’s a good first step. Veterans who have received other-than-honorable discharges are at higher risk of suicide than their honorably discharged peers — depriving them of care, therefore, only increases the likelihood that they will die by suicide.

Closer to home, Maine moved in the right direction during the last legislative session by approving L.D. 1231, which sets up a program to gather data on mental health admissions for veterans and establishes a pilot initiative to provide case management for those who require mental health care.

Of the roughly 30,000 veterans in Maine who don’t use VA health care services, it is estimated that over 10,000 are in need of mental health care. If Maine’s new pilot program can save the life of just one of them, it will have been worth it — and hopefully, the initiative will do far more than that for those who have done so much for their country.


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