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Are More Faith-Based Programs Key to Stopping Military Suicides?

WASHINGTON – Some veterans organizations are calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to allow better access to faith-based treatment in addition to secular, clinical offerings for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues.

The call comes at a time when the military grapples with a suicide rate of 20 service members per day. Chad Robichaux, president and founder of the Christian group the Mighty Oaks Foundation, said in a recent interview that he recognizes the successes of clinical treatment, but reasoned that it can lead to service members taking 20 to 30 pills a day – for sleep aid, for energy and for anxiety issues.

“They’re only just numbing the symptoms and not actually ever getting better,” Robichaux said, adding that the nonprofit has not lost a single program participant to suicide since its founding in 2016.

“[Medication] is like using a hammer for every problem in your house,” the organization’s executive director, Jeremy Stalnecker, said during the interview. “The medical people look at this very singularly – there’s one problem, and medication is always the treatment.”

Robichaux said it’s also important for veterans to become facilitators in their own healing. They are not responsible for the trauma they’ve experienced, or the impact it’s had, but they are responsible for how they react moving forward, he said.

There is a constant flow of legislation meant to address the issues of veterans and mental health. Reps. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) and Thomas Suozzi (D-N.Y.) recently introduced bills meant to expand mental health offerings for veterans, though it’s unclear if either would allow better access to faith-based treatment.

Kildee’s package of legislation would direct the secretary of Defense to “more effectively” provide mental health care for service members with a high suicide risk. It would also address financial literacy and affordable housing issues. Suozzi’s legislation would provide free mental health care to service members, regardless of discharge status.

“It’s obvious when someone loses a limb or is injured tragically in war to identify that their injury is service-related,” Suozzi said in a statement. “But for veterans who go home at night and are alone by themselves – dealing with a mental illness – too many are suffering alone, and it’s not easy to identify these problems as being service-related. We need to change this.”

Retired Army Col. David Dodd in a recent interview agreed with the prospect of offering faith-based treatment. He said that healthcare options at Veterans Affairs are good to an extent — using cognitive behavioral therapy for PTSD, for example — but he said service members should have more flexibility. Some of the veterans might need additional attention, or maybe they’re not comfortable with the VA treatment, he suggested.

“I would be comfortable with them having the ability to go off, to be outsourced, to be able to go to a mental health provider that they feel more comfortable with,” he said, adding that many service members seek licensed treatment within their faith.

Both Dodd and leadership at Mighty Oaks agreed that while most VA employees have good intentions and are making veterans the priority, there are a few “bad apples.” Dodd said there’s an issue in which many people who have worked for the VA for a long time are difficult to remove.

“Some of the people are great, they’re really nice … but there’s a lot of dead weight, there’s a lot of people that really do need to be removed,” Dodd said, suggesting that the VA secretary should have the ability to fire individuals at will. “It should be that he gets the benefit of the doubt, and not the employee. The veteran should come first.”