The number of veteran suicide deaths throughout the country has risen steadily since 2001, with an average of 17 veterans dying by suicide each day.
On top of these sobering suicide rates, overall veteran mortality rates have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, the second half of 2021 was an exceptionally difficult and traumatic period for the post-9/11 generation of veterans: the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 was triggering for many and came on the heels of a violent and chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. After the Taliban takeover, 90% of Afghanistan war veterans with a history of mental illness experienced new or worsening mental health symptoms, including depression and thoughts of suicide. Access to mental health care and social support are essential elements of an evidence-based suicide prevention approach. In 2021, NYHealth awarded a grant to New York Cares, as part of a larger project with the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Center at NYU Langone, Western New York Heroes, and Veterans Outreach Center, to provide community-based mental health and peer support, as well as screenings and support service referrals to veterans across New York State.
Under this grant, New York Cares partnered with the New York City Department of Veterans’ Services to continue its Mission: VetCheck program, which provides “buddy checks,” peer-to-peer support, and referrals across New York City. It recruited and trained 500 volunteers to conduct telephone outreach to veterans in need; identified veterans deemed to be at high risk of attempting suicide, based on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ suicide risk guidelines, and contacted a total of 17,000 veterans in the region; and prioritized connecting veterans facing food insecurity and a lack of mental health care with services provided by community partners and other NYHealth grantees. Finally, New York Cares tracked demographic and referral information of veterans served.