Is Oklahoma doing enough to help returning veterans?

Chan Aaron is an OK Policy intern. He is pursuing an environmental policy degree at The University of Tulsa. He is also a graduate of Oklahoma State University with a degree in philosophy and a veteran of the United States Navy.

On average, twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day in the United States. An estimated 60,000 veterans are currently homeless. Veteran suicide and homelessness are serious problems in Oklahoma and the whole country. What is our response when those who have sacrificed for all of us through military service find themselves without a home, or are so troubled they think they have to end their own lives?

According to Oklahoma’s National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), 1,018 veterans committed suicide between 2005 and 2012, an average of 127 per year. The veteran suicide rate (39.2 per 100,000 people) was twice that of non-veteran Oklahomans (18.2 per 100,000 people). Since Oklahoma’s overall suicide rate is already well above the national average, that means the average Oklahoma veteran is nearly 4 times more likely to commit suicide than any non-veteran, non-Oklahoman. The NVDRS concluded that those veterans who committed suicide were largely male and very young or very old, either disabled or depressed, under the influence of alcohol, familiar with firearms, or some combination of these factors.

The large number of returning veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has inundated the national veteran assistance system with more than it is equipped to handle. While patients at Oklahoma Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics did not experience the same kind of wait times that became a national scandal last year, new patients seeking mental health appointments still waited an average of 44 days in Oklahoma City and 31 days in Muskogee.

“It’s tragic that these brave men and women put their lives at risk to serve their country only to come home and not have anywhere to turn for help. We’re losing too many of our heroes to suicide, drug and alcohol addiction, and other issues that are completely preventable with the proper treatment,” said Frank Simpson, R-Springer, Chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee, in a press release this past February.

“We’re losing too many of our heroes to suicide, drug and alcohol addiction, and other issues that are completely preventable with the proper treatment.”

Sen. Simpson attempted to address the problem with SB 713, which directs the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to facilitate the development of seven peer-supported drop-in centers to serve Oklahoma’s veterans. The idea for drop-in centers is modeled after Tulsa’s Coffee Bunker, a non-profit coffee house and community center specializing in programs to help veterans reintegrate with their families and communities. The Coffee Bunker provides a number of free programs, including skills and career training, a 12-step addiction group, an immediate housing shelter that can last up to 2 months, and a mental health class that reframes dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as exercising to attain psychological fitness.

The Legislature’s creation of a framework to build similar programs across the state is a good start. But there’s a catch — the Legislature has not provided any way for these services to be funded. Legislative staff reported that drop-in centers would require funding of $35,000 to $40,000 per site, but SB 713 made implementation “subject to the availability of funds” without saying where funding will come from.

It’s unlikely that those funds will be available anytime soon. For several years, ODMHSAS has not received enough funding to maintain all of its existing programs, much less to add new ones, and even larger budget shortfalls are on the horizon. A spokesperson for the department said they had asked for $1 million to provide treatment and supports to serve Oklahoma’s veterans in their FY 2015 budget request, but no funding was provided. ODMHSAS is providing technical assistance for those drop-in centers that have been established without state funding, but communities that can’t fund it on their own remain unable to establish this service.

Legislators have rightfully recognized a dire need for veteran suicide prevention and other services to help them overcome the traumas of war. They’ve identified a promising model for providing these services through peer-supported drop-in centers. Yet as in so many areas, lawmakers have not committed the necessary funding to make anything happen. They’ve prioritized unnecessary tax cuts and tax breaks over protecting funding for core services. Until that changes, lawmakers’ response will be all talk and no action. Oklahoma veterans, who made great sacrifices in service to our country, deserve better.

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