WVPA Sharing

WV Senate Bill 598 would address suicide prevention among state’s military veterans

By Autumn Shelton, WV Press News Sharing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A bill designed to help prevent suicide among West Virginia’s military veterans is making its way through the state’s legislative process.

Senate Bill 598, which was originally introduced on Feb. 9 through lead sponsor Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, at the request of Gov. Jim Justice, has only one goal – getting assistance to military veterans before they make the decision to end their life. 

This bill plans to do that by giving the state Department of Veterans’ Assistance the ability to partner with localized veteran service organizations to provide more “boots on the ground.” 

The bill was brought before the Senate Military Committee during their Tuesday, Feb. 15, meeting, where it was the only bill discussed. 

“Veterans in this state are almost twice as likely to die by suicide than non-veterans,” said Edward Diaz, cabinet secretary for the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance, as he spoke before committee members, adding that suicide rates among West Virginia veterans are higher than the national average. 

“Although families of veterans aren’t specifically tracked in these numbers, we believe that they are also higher risk, which is why we are taking this approach,” Diaz continued. “There are numerous factors that come into play when someone decides to end their life. It’s impossible to focus on just one or two. We have got to try to identify and address all of the root causes.” 

Diaz explained that the largest contributing factors that lead to suicide include mental health issues and substance abuse as well as financial insecurity. Although, there are programs throughout the state, including the federal veterans affairs partnership, that work with veterans “roughly two-thirds of veteran suicides are among those who are not even enrolled in VA healthcare.” 

He went on to say that those with his department “reach out as much as they can to help identify this. They are trained in how to identify and what to look for when it comes to mental health, and just be able to provide that assistance as much as they can, but they can’t do it all.” 

He explained that both governmental and non-governmental agencies need to work together to save lives. He provided examples of some groups that work with veterans, including Helping Heroes, Operation Jackson County Veterans and the Battle Buddy Response Team, all of which provide support that many veterans may not even be aware of. 

Senate Military Committee Chair Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, responded to Diaz by stating that one of the best things about SB 598 is that it gives the state VA department the ability to partner with organizations, like those mentioned, and develop a collaborative effort to get help to all of West Virginia’s veterans. 

In response to a question from Senator Amy Grady, R-Mason, about the department’s efficiency and current methods of reaching out to veterans, Diaz explained that his department has 15 field offices throughout the state, but that it is “hard to reach every nook and cranny in the state.” 

On average, he said that each field office employs 1-2 people who do their best to organize veterans assistance, but this bill will give them more support and more people to reach those who need it the most. 

Lata Menon, CEO for First Choice Services, which operates the state’s suicide hotline, added that “we get calls from these men and women on a daily basis.” She said her company is in full support of SB 598. 

Lt. Col. Scott Applegate, deputy staff judge advocate for the WV Army National Guard, stated that one of the priorities of the state’s Adjutant General is to connect the state’s veteran population.

“What we realize is there’s a big aspect of social connectedness that helps with that,” Applegate said, regarding suicide rates. “We believe this bill goes a long way to support that social connectedness and the expansive nature of it. Now, we can work with other organizations through the Department of Veterans Assistance to help reach those goals.” 

“A lot of the problems that we have seen, from the National Guard standpoint, is that we have the resources, it’s just connecting the veterans and service members with those resources. We think this will provide a better hub for providing those resources to combat suicide rates, attempts and ideations in the state of West Virginia.” 

Senate Military Committee Vice-Chair Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, agreed to support a committee substitute version of the original bill.  

Phillips thanked those who worked on the committee substitute bill by stating “being a victim of this, it’s tough . . . Thank you so much, tell your staff and every veteran out there we love ‘em.” 

Following approval, the committee substitute for SB 598 is now headed to the full Senate with the recommendation that it do pass.

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