In October, President Trump signed a bipartisan bill aimed at improving mental health among veterans, according to Congress.gov. The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019 included an initiative co-written by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) and Senator John Boozman (R-AR).
In a Military Times op-ed, Warner and Boozman said their IMPROVE initiative would help bridge the gap between government resources at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and private non-profits. The legislation provides grants through the VA to qualifying veteran-serving organizations.
“The IMPROVE Well-Being for Veterans Act, which we originally introduced in June 2019, has been described by [VA] Secretary Robert Wilkie as the “key” to unlocking the problem of veteran suicide,” the senators wrote in November.
Their op-ed continues, “While we’re confident that this approach will only bolster veteran suicide prevention efforts and lead to a reduction in veteran suicide, the days of trusting mere funding increases to result in fewer suicides and better mental health care success will also be a thing of the past. The IMPROVE provision also ensures that suicide prevention programs will be subject to a measurement tool that will indicate the effectiveness of these efforts.”
Daniel Gade ran against Warner in the 2020 Senate election. Gade is a veteran, and post-election, he is launching a veterans-advocacy PAC.
Gade told The Virginia Star, “The bill itself is uncontroversial. It is a way to get community resources involved to help veterans and other people who are struggling. And to that end, it makes a lot of sense and I’m in support of the bill in concept.”
In the op-ed, the senators say 20 veterans a day die of suicide, but Gade said that recent reporting suggests that figure is low.
“Far too often, members of Congress have no idea what the scope of the problem is, much less how to address it,” Gade said. “In this case, the authors of this bill have no idea what the scope of the problem is. And that’s one of the reasons that I started my PAC, to hire more veterans, to see more veterans be elected members of Congress.”
Gade said that even before his campaign, he had written and spoken about how to help veterans through government. He told The Star how to evaluate pro-veteran legislation.
“Does the bill make veterans dependent on government, or does it help them stand on their own two feet (or in my case one foot)?” Gade said, “Does any bill further mental health by making veterans understand their value to themselves, to their families, to society?”
“Does the bill treat veterans like broken toys?” Gade asked. He said often, legislation fails to treat veterans like important, economically valuable members of society.
“We’re watching out for bills that sort of assume that just because somebody was in the military that they have post-traumatic stress, for example. Or just because somebody was in the military, they are disabled in some way. Or just because somebody has a disability, that they can’t work or shouldn’t be expected to work.”
He said legislators should avoid programs that focus on compensation, a strategy that can create dependency.
“The two most important things I’d say are employment. So we need to help veterans find and maintain meaningful employment, and number two, any bill that’s out there should be a treatment-first bill rather than a compensation-first bill.”
Gade said the IMPROVE bill is an example of legislation that is focused on resources instead of compensation, but it doesn’t address the underlying despair that causes mental health problems for veterans.
“The most powerful thing we can do to help veterans thrive is to get them into meaningful employment because it improves their mental health, it improves their physical health, it improves their societal standing,” Gade said.
“Suicide is an incredibly complex disorder,” Gade said. “Any bill that people put forth that they say is going to be the magic solution to something as complex as suicide is shortsighted.”
Gade said, “Veterans who understand veterans are the right ones to be making policy with respect to veterans.”
– – –