WASHINGTON – Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) called attention to the veteran suicide crisis on Wednesday, urging the Department of Veteran Affairs to expand its medical research and improve its efforts at suicide prevention, especially for those living in rural communities.

“The VA needs to do more to ensure that our rural veterans like those in Montana are not left behind,” said Tester, chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

The senator hosted a panel with research executives at the VA to discuss how Congress can advance health care for veterans, particularly those in rural areas. Invited witnesses, including leaders in the VA’s Office of Research and Development and a Montana mental health advocate, debated how to translate the department’s cutting-edge medical research into tangible improvements in care.

In 2020, the VA reported that Montana’s veteran suicide rate was almost double that of the national veteran population, with 58.2 per 100,000 veterans taking their own lives compared to the national average of 31.7.

“We need more clinicians, we need more mental health care professionals, we need more, more, more, more and more in rural America. Why? Because suicide rates are so damn high. And so we need to have that research out there,” Tester told the Medill News Service following the hearing. Studies show that people living in rural areas, including veterans, commit suicide at higher rates than those in cities. 

Scientists and clinicians supported by the VA said that ongoing research has the potential to advance mental health care, particularly in screening for suicidal risk. 

“We’re not going to have all of the fancy research infrastructure that the VA wants or needs to come to our state,” Matthew Kuntz, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Montana, told Tester. “But I do believe that those big studies need to be decentralized enough where you can demand that they be available to your veterans. That it is not the VA’s choice whether or not to come to our state, it is just a matter of when and how.”

One of the VA’s studies Kuntz was referring to was the Million Veteran Program, a database of genomic data submitted voluntarily by over 985,000 veterans used by scientists to research post-traumatic stress disorder, heart disease, depression and suicide risk in veterans.

“If you’re a relative of someone who is a veteran and if you’re concerned that they may be at high risk to hurt themselves, the stuff that we’re discovering about the correlates of high-risk suicide behavior might help them,” said Dr. Philip Harvey, a psychiatry professor at the University of Miami and recipient of the VA’s highest award for clinical research. The Million Veteran Program aims to enroll 1 million veterans, and all veterans, regardless of where they receive care, are eligible to join.

Tester expressed concern that such cutting-edge research was too consolidated at major, metropolitan universities and should be expanded across the country. 

“I think it’s a big mistake to say, ‘You guys don’t have the big university, the Ivy League schools,’ and all that stuff [because] especially when it comes to mental health, rural America is afflicted by it,” Tester said.

Research leaders from the VA acknowledged the agency’s need to prioritize access to novel care in rural regions. 

“What I’m hearing today is that we need to do better at getting clinical trials into our rural areas, and we’ll have to do that by working with medical center directors in those areas,” said Rachel Ramoni, Chief Research and Development Officer at the VA. 

Tester said that mental health has been a focus of his for a long time and hopes Congress and the VA can make strides.

“I think we can get our arms around it, and I think we’re starting to make some progress, but we’re not where we need to be.”

Published in conjunction with The Bend Bulletin