By U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto
Nevada is home to over 200,000 veterans, and rural counties like Esmeralda, Mineral, Churchill and Nye have some of the highest per capita veteran populations in the nation. As the daughter and granddaughter of veterans, I understand how important it is to ensure we’re honoring our commitment to Nevada’s veterans every day. Part of that commitment means doing everything we can to support those who are still recovering from the invisible wounds incurred during military service.
Yet I know that many veterans and their families in Nevada and throughout the country are facing extreme challenges. The heartbreaking reality is that Nevada has the 11th highest suicide rate in the nation, and 23 percent of those killed by suicide in our state are veterans. Rural veterans are particularly at risk because of the prevalence of suicide in our rural communities – rural Nevadans are already 56 percent more likely to take their lives than residents in our second-most populous county, Washoe County. Our veterans in rural communities are also more prone to suffering from severe mental health issues.
Despite these alarming numbers, half of veterans with mental health diagnoses receive no treatment at all. And for veterans struggling with mental health conditions in our rural areas, finding adequate resources is even more challenging. A majority of rural counties in the United States don’t have a single psychiatrist, and nearly half don’t have a psychologist. Nevada is no exception – the ratio of residents to mental health providers in Humboldt County was a staggering 990:1 in 2018. Months-long waiting lists for therapy are common in the few rural areas that do have a mental health professional.
Our veterans deserve better. That’s why I’ve made supporting veteran mental health services a priority. To directly confront the crisis of veteran suicide, I’ve introduced the SERVICE Act, which removes time limits on combat veterans’ eligibility for VA mental health services for conditions related to their service. Since conditions like PTSD can take years or decades to manifest, veterans must have access to mental health support from the VA without a time limit.
To make sure our rural veterans receive support, I recently cosponsored the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, which bolsters the VA’s mental health workforce and increases rural or hard-to-reach veterans’ access to VA care. It also makes sure veterans have access to alternative and local treatment options like animal therapy, outdoor sports and activities, yoga and acupuncture. I also introduced the Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act, legislation that seeks to provide access to Nevada’s public lands as a way for veterans to seek alternative therapy. Studies have shown that outdoor recreation has a positive impact on overall physical health, mental wellbeing and recovery outcomes, and I’m excited by the prospect that the outdoors can help our rural veterans heal from trauma. Additionally, I’ve worked to ensure accountability at the VA by demanding that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie explain how he is prioritizing suicide prevention in light of a Government Accountability Office report showing that the Department failed to spend millions of dollars budgeted to address the crisis of veteran suicide.
It’s also important veterans and their families know the array of services available to them throughout Nevada. “Zero Suicides” is an initiative that increases awareness and prevention efforts for families as well as training for law enforcement officers in Elko County. In Humboldt County, the Humboldt Connection Suicide Prevention group created a nonprofit and hired a case manager to address rural suicide. The group even paid for a billboard highlighting the issue on Interstate 80 east towards Winnemucca as part of its effort. Local VA Centers are also performing life-saving work, like the Eureka Vet Center that offers services ranging from counseling for veterans and their families, PTSD support groups to art therapy and walking groups. I’m proud our rural Nevada communities are coming together to support important mental health initiatives and honor our veterans.
Our service members deserve every support possible, both during active duty and when they return home. I’ll continue to fight for our veterans by making sure they have access to the critical mental health and support services they deserve. Nevada is stronger because of our veterans, and I’ll always stand with them.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or depression, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741. The Crisis Support Services of Nevada, which has a 24/7 crisis line, is also available at 1-800-273-8255 or text CARE to 839863. The National Alliance of Mental Illness also has a 24/7 Nevada crisis hotline at 775-470-5600 as well as support groups and recovery programs throughout the state. Go to www.naminevada.org to learn more about Nevada-specific resources. The Nevada Coalition for Suicide Prevention offers ASIST and safeTALK training. Learn more at https://nvsuicideprevention.org/. To help a loved one in a time of crisis, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline suggests staying with the person, removing lethal means from the area and escorting them to a mental health provider or an emergency room.