JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Veterans commit suicide at a rate substantially higher than that of the general population in the United States.
And a Missouri lawmaker is looking to task a state commission with doing more to save lives.
It's a personal issue for Rep. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City, who served in the U.S. Army 8th Special Forces Group as a Green Beret.
"I've had veteran friends of mine that have committed suicide, and you always wonder why didn't somebody reach out to them," he said. "Why didn't I reach out to them? Why didn't I say something? And I think there's a certain amount of guilt that goes along with that."
Griffith sponsors HB 2455, which would require the Missouri Veterans Commission to follow the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act that Congress passed in 2019.
The federal legislation arms the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs with grants to support groups providing suicide-prevention services and requires the agency to conduct a feasibility study on implementing "complementary and integrative health services," such as acupuncture or animal therapy, at all VA medical facilities, among a multitude of other studies in mental health care.
If Griffith's bill succeeds, the Missouri Veterans Commission would work in collaboration with the state Department of Mental Health to provide recommendations and adopt new procedures, programs, treatment options and other measures to prevent veteran suicide.
Griffith's bill also requires the commission to provide a report starting in 2023 about the effectiveness of implemented suicide-prevention efforts.
The Missouri House passed Griffith's bill in March, and it's now working through the Senate Seniors, Families, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. As of April 8, it hadn't been scheduled for a Senate hearing.
"I think the expansion of mental health is something that the Legislature is keenly aware of, and the need to expand it," Griffith said. "And I think we're starting to do that."
Aimee Packard, a spokesperson for the Missouri Veterans Commission, said she couldn't speak to how the commission would implement Griffith's bill because it's still working through the legislative process, but the agency offers some suicide-prevention resources through the Missouri Benefits and Resource Portal.
Under the mental health tab, the portal links to outside resources offered by other organizations and agencies, such as the Missouri Suicide Prevention Network, the Department of Mental Health and K9s On The Front Line in Jefferson City.
The portal offers additional resources in areas where there's a need among veterans, including homelessness, health care and state benefits.
The Missouri Veterans Commission is also involved with the governor's challenge to prevent suicide among service members, veterans and their families, Packard said.
The VA and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration created the challenge and Missouri is one of 35 states participating. It calls for states to develop and implement suicide prevention best practices using a public health approach.
In Missouri, the challenge has taken the shape of a task force of federal, state and community partners that regularly meets to iron out veteran suicide-prevention strategies. The discussions are centered around identifying service members, veterans and their families and screening for suicide risk, promoting connectedness and improving care transitions, and increasing safety planning.
The Missouri Veterans Commission and Missouri Department of Mental Health, among other state agencies, are key players involved in the challenge, Griffith said.
Missouri has a higher veteran suicide rate than the nation, according to data from the VA.
Nearly 27 veterans per 100,000 committed suicide in 2019, according to the National Veteran Suicide Prevention report issued by the VA in September 2021.
And in Missouri, the suicide rate is much higher at 43.4 veterans per 100,000 in 2019.
The 27 veterans per 100,000 ratio is an adjusted rate accounting for age and sex differences between veterans and non-veterans in the United States. The adjusted rate is still 52.3 percent higher than for non-veteran U.S. adults, according to the report.
Griffith recognized suicide is an issue that affects everyone, but said the state needs to start somewhere and, as the chairman of the House Veterans Committee, he wanted to start with veterans.
He said he's searched for ways the state could start bringing those numbers down and address the root issue of mental healthcare and he would like to see a greater awareness campaign surrounding suicide-prevention services and how to detect if someone is considering killing themselves.
His bill would put the onus and more work on the commission, Griffith admitted, but Missouri needs to be collecting and reviewing more data. Armed with more data and the ability to assess trends, he said the state can begin making progress.
Griffith said he would like to see the development of a card that displays the warning signs someone is considering suicide, similar to how the Red Cross has cards to promote the warning signs of someone having a heart attack.
He said that's one way to introduce the conversation to more people. And those conversations are important.
"That really takes a lot of courage to be able to do that because if you've got somebody that's dealing with some real demons, for them to really start sharing those with you is a big step," Griffith said. "And it's a hard step, but as friends and as family, I think it's really up to us to have those hard conversations."
Griffith said he's grateful for the people who do reach out to veterans, and he hopes his legislation promotes more of those conversations around the state.
"If you don't know the signs and you can't see the change in behavior, it comes your way out of the blue and you've lost a loved one," he said.