Talk Justice, an LSC Podcast: How Legal Services Help Prevent Veteran Suicides
Director of Communications and Media Relations
WASHINGTON– Experts discuss how legal services contribute to veteran suicide prevention on the latest episode of LSC's “Talk Justice” podcast, released today. LSC Vice President of Legal Affairs, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary Will Gunn hosts the conversation. Gunn, who is a former general counsel for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and a retired Air Force colonel, is joined by guests Jeff Staton, managing attorney at Legal Aid Society in Kentucky, and Dr. Eric Elbogen, director of the National Veterans Financial Resource Center (FINVET) at the Department of Veterans Affairs and professor of psychiatry at Duke University.
The most recent data places the veteran suicide rate at 57% higher than non-veterans. Research indicates that social factors contribute to veterans’ suicide risk. Many of these factors that harm veterans’ mental health relate to civil legal problems that can be addressed with the help of an attorney.
Dr. Elbogen—whose research often focuses on veterans’ mental health and suicide risk as it relates to financial problems, housing insecurity and other social factors—says that the VA is advancing a public health approach to suicide prevention which includes consideration of social determinants of health.
“Suicide is a mental health problem, but it's also a social problem,” says Dr. Elbogen. “There's other components to it that are the social determinants like homelessness, unemployment [and] financial strain.”
Dr. Elbogen explains that studies have shown that factors like debt and food insecurity relate to active-duty military and veteran suicide attempts. However, protective factors like stable housing and employment reduce suicidal ideation.
In 2022, Legal Aid Society received one of the VA’s Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention grants. The grant allowed Legal Aid Society to provide veterans legal services beyond their usual scope, including monetary assistance for emergency housing support.
Staton tells the story of one client, “Vince,” who was discharged from the army in the 1980s and had recently lost his job after being hospitalized with a medical problem. The sudden loss of income was causing Vince to experience a mental health crisis. Legal Aid Society helped Vince file for unemployment and social security disability insurance. The Fox grant allowed Legal Aid Society to also cover Vince’s utilities and connect him with services like the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program (HUD-VASH).
“We were able to triage all these issues for Vince and help him just stay housed and prevent him from sliding further down into homelessness and exacerbating his mental health,” says Staton.
“And I think that's very important—these indicators, these social determinants, if you don't address them or the person doesn’t [know how] to address them and has no help, the situation just kind of worsens and worsens kind of like a medical condition until it's to the point it's critical,” Staton continues.
In his work with veterans, Dr. Elbogen had a light-bulb moment when they described to him what it was like to transition out of active duty.
“[What veterans have] told me is that when they were in the military, they actually had a lot of these social protective factors—they had housing stability, they had employment, they had social support, they had money to cover basic needs,” says Dr. Elbogen. “One veteran said, ‘it's like the carpet was swept out from under me, I suddenly had to pay my first light bill and do a budget for the first time and I had to create a resume and try to find a job.’”
FINVET was funded last year by the VA Office of Mental Health and Suicide prevention. The website, which Dr. Elbogen says will be launching soon, directs veterans to many different types of resources tailored to the specific issue they’re facing. In the meantime, veterans and advocates can see a list of helpful resources on LSC’s website here.
Talk Justice episodes are available online and on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple and other popular podcast apps. The podcast is sponsored by LSC’s Leaders Council. The next episode of the podcast will explore alternative legal service delivery models. service delivery models.