BOISE, Idaho — In 6 On Your Side's Madeline White's exclusive sit-down interview Wednesday, US Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie told us his plans for combating veteran suicide in Idaho.
Wilkie leads the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, DC— a department Wilkie said is a centerpiece in President Trump’s administration.
“I have the largest budget in the history of the department thanks to the president-- $220 billion dollars-- I’m the only cabinet secretary who does not have to come up with budget cuts," said Wilkie.
And in March, Trump signed an executive order vowing to design a program to propose to congress aimed at combating veteran suicide-- providing grants to local communities like ones in Idaho. As we previously reported, a suicide prevention expert at the Boise VA hopes Idaho gets some of those dollars.
“The president’s executive order is definitely welcome because I think the state of Idaho could use as much money as possible to put our state plan into action," said Mary Pierce, suicide prevention coordinator at the Boise VA Medical Center.
According to 2017 data from the VA, roughly 10% of Idaho’s adult population is made up of veterans. Yet, in that same year, “Idaho had 400 suicides. Veterans accounted for 20% of those," according to Wilkie.
For vets in rural Idaho, Wilkie said access to mental healthcare resources is something he’s working on.
“What we see here in Idaho, is we need to reach those folks," said Wilkie.
He said he plans to continue to promote Telehealth.
“And that means that we can reach veterans on the computer in areas that are hard to get," said Wilkie.
And said he is optimistic when it comes to outreach.
“We already have outreach, but I don’t believe we have the kind of outreach that I believe we will have once the president’s task force will finish its work," said Wilkie.
In the meantime, the Idaho Council on Suicide Prevention waits for good news.
"What is the likelihood that Idaho could be seeing some federal funding?" we asked.
"Well I think-- I think that it'll be high," said Wilkie. "Because when we come to the end of this process, my view is that the most important step forward will be to open up the aperture when it comes to getting states like Idaho. But not just state governments, local governments and charities-- the resources they need to go out and find those veterans.”
Are you or someone you know feeling anxious or alone or having thoughts of suicide? Confidential help is available 24/7. Call or text the Veteran's Crisis Hotline at 1 (800) 273-8255 (and press 1), or the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1 (208) 398-4357.
Wilkie said they should be finished assessing needs in March or April of next year, at which point, he said, they will take those recommendations to the Congress.