JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri has one of the highest veteran suicide rates in the country and currently, lawmakers are trying to find answers on how to reduce the numbers.
In 2019, there were 188 suicide deaths among veterans in the state which ranked Missouri in the top ten in the nation. A group of representatives is looking into why that is and if the state needs to offer more resources to those who are serving or have served our country.
The House Interim Committee on Veterans Mental Health and Suicide met for the first time Wednesday. Chairman of the committee, Rep. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City, said the goal is to curb a plague among Missouri veterans.
“These hearings are meant to shine a light on mental health issues and suicide that we’ve got in the state of Missouri and what we can do with it, and it begins with the veteran community,” said Griffith. “What my hope is, what my prayer is, is that we will be able to make a difference.”
Missouri’s veteran suicide rate is 43.4 according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. The national average is 31.6.
“Mental health is not just a veteran issue, it’s an issue statewide and nationwide, but for military people, it’s even more of a problem than in the general population,” Missouri Veterans Commission executive director Paul Kirchhoff told the committee members. “There’s a stigma against seeking help within the military, particularly whenever it comes to mental health. It can be seen as a weakness.”
Some members of the committee said they are trying to understand what’s changed over the years causing suicide rates to rise.
“People my age, my generation wonder how did this happen?” said Rep. Mike Stephens, R-Bolivar. “Was it always like this? I’m of a certain age and have watched things change so drastically whereas the general population rate was so much higher as opposed to the veteran suicide rate and now it seems to be flipped.”
Devin Norton is the director of the Valor Recovery Program which is connected to Signature Psychiatric Hospital in the Kansas City area. The program has 16 beds available, and patients stay anywhere between four to six weeks. The program is open to veterans, active military members, and first responders.
“These are people who are screened and let into the military who often have a history of mental health that they hide,” said Norton. “Oftentimes, these people already have something they are struggling with. Then they training they go through, the deployments they have, things they are exposed to that exacerbate that are already happening.”
The Missouri Department of Mental Health (DMH) does have a veterans service unit, but it’s only staffed by one person, the director Jon Sabala.
“Talking to someone about suicide is very scary because if you ask the question, what if they say yes?” Sabala said. “It’s important to highlight Missouri does not have the highest rate of veteran suicide, which is a plus, but we are still very high. Definitely in the top ten in the nation.”
Sabala said there are different programs and events the department offers to help veterans and active military members.
“When we talk about suicide prevention, one of the greatest things we can do is make them feel connected and that they are not alone,” Sabala said.
Back in 2020, Missouri lawmakers approved legislation known as the “Buddy Check 22 Day.” On the 22nd of every month, the state asks Missourians to pick up the phone or check in on a veteran they know.
“You’re connecting with a friend, a person you know, so be that friend,” said Sabala. “Be that person that asks how are you doing, what’s going on, or says I haven’t seen you in a while.”
Gary Grigsby, an immediate past department commander with the Missouri American Legion says he believes today’s youth and soldiers aren’t as “steeled” as they once were.
“We’re losing members to attrition,” Grigsby said. “World War II veterans lead the list at this time, however, there is an alarming number of deaths that are attributed to a cause which while not being entirely preventable, certainly can be reduced. This cause is veteran suicide.”
Kirchhoff said it added to the increase of veteran suicides due to a lack of local social interaction veterans have with service organizations.
“That’s an opportunity to interact with other veterans and maybe discuss with others who understand the situation that we’ve been there, they’ve had those same life experiences,” said Kirchhoff.
During Wednesday’s hearing the Brown family from Springfield, who is recently suffering a loss, want to see the state offer more resources.
“Our soldiers deserve to feel safe asking for whatever intervention is necessary without fear of judgment or unnecessary consequences,” said Kelly Brown. “I can tell you 100% certainty that Matt didn’t want to die, but for reasons none of us can fully understand, he thought he would cause us less pain and death than he did in life.”
Lieut. Col. Matt Brown died by suicide last November, a week before Thanksgiving. He left behind his wife Kelly of 27 years, two daughters, Bailey and Mallory, and a son Evan.
“When I was 12, he was deployed for a year to Afghanistan and I spent every day praying he would come home alive,” said Bailey. “By the grace of God, he did make it home.”
Matt was also a member of the Springfield Police Department for 21 years, one year from retiring. He also had two grandsons. He spent 25 years in the Army National Guard and was deployed in 2009 for 14 months.
“My dad committed suicide out of genuine love for us,” said Bailey. “He thought he was shielding us from his mental health through the years and removing any possibility of hurting us. At that moment, he made the wrong choice and I can’t help but wonder where we would be today if things were different.”
During his time in Afghanistan, Kelly said her husband suffered nerve damage to his arm following an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion. She said Matt was never the same after deployment and was afraid to not look weak.
“Take into consideration the two career paths that Matt chose, law enforcement and military,” said Kelly. “We all know there’s an expectation for those guys to remain strong and not look weak.”
The Missouri Veterans Commission does offer an online website with a list of resources for military members, both active and past, and their families.