Tragic Violence Will Continue Until We Make Mental Health A National Priority

01/10/2017 01:20 pm ET | Updated Jan 11, 2017

Esteban Santiago, who opened fire in the Fort Lauderdale airport last week, was only 26 years old. He was an Iraq war veteran who had received a general discharge from the military for unsatisfactory performance. He had recently undergone psychiatric evaluation after claiming he was hearing voices. The FBI had been involved. Santiago also had been accused of domestic disturbance, allegedly trying to strangle his girlfriend. Yet his gun was returned to him.

The signs were all there. But Santiago didn’t get the help he needed. This isn’t the first time this has happened. It certainly won’t be the last.

Nearly one out of every four active duty military members shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or other mental health condition like traumatic brain injury. Military suicide rates are 20 to 50 percent higher than civilian rates. On average, 22 veterans die by suicide every day. Our military men and women are fighting invisible wounds – mental health injuries – many years after their service ends. These mental health challenges can contribute to suicide, and in rare instances, something worse, as in the case of Santiago.

How many innocent lives will be lost before we take action to address the woefully inadequate state of mental health care in this country? This issue cannot be reduced to politics. This is about saving lives.

We can’t begin to heal these invisible wounds that put people at risk of harming themselves or others until we admit they exist and offer real help to those who need it. We need to eliminate the stigma around mental health for our entire country, especially for our veterans who are taught to be strong and self-sufficient. Law enforcement and mental health agencies need to collaborate. Businesses need to offer mental health resources to all employees. We need to significantly reduce wait times to see a mental health professional, ensuring those who need help quickly receive it, for as long as they need it.

We need more trained mental health professionals in schools, workplaces, hospitals, prisons, and the military to intervene early and help prevent more tragedies. “The most consistent and powerful predictor of future violence is a history of violent behavior,” says the American Psychological Association. Having the right resources in place to identify those warning signs and provide treatment may make all the difference in the world.

This cannot wait.

And this is not just a veterans’ issue. We all remember Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds, who was stabbed repeatedly by his mentally-ill son who later died by suicide, dying from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. His son had been discharged from a hospital emergency room hours before the attack due to lack of psychiatric facilities. Could this tragedy have been avoided if we had more resources for mental health? If we had a better system in place to find immediate treatment, especially during a crisis?

That’s why I’m a tireless advocate for mental health, for our veterans and for all Americans, and I urge the new Administration to make this a top priority.

Recently, at Community Health Charities’ veterans’ event at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, I was joined by Governor Tom Ridge, National News Anchor Heather Nauert, Major General Mark Graham, Brigadier General Allyson Solomon, nonprofits and companies to launch Hero’s Health, which lifts up military, veterans, and first responders. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a partner on this for good reason. At the event, General Graham shared about losing his son, a senior Army cadet in ROTC, to suicide, and his other son, a 2LT, by an IED in the Iraq War. Today, he is a tireless champion for mental health and suicide prevention, working with Vets4Warriors which provides 24/7 free, confidential, peer support by veterans, for veterans, and their families. I salute General Graham’s courage and dedication, and the sacrifices his family made for our country.

We cannot let those sacrifices go to waste. It’s one thing to have parades for our veterans to celebrate their service. However, it’s another matter altogether to really support our veterans, especially veterans with mental health challenges. And every time another act of senseless violence occurs, we rush to lay blame and politicize it rather than consider how much more we could do to prevent these tragedies in the future.

We must stand together and take action to support all Americans who are struggling with mental health challenges. This is the most pressing health issue of our time.

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