Weekly Column

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In Omaha earlier this month, a group of Nebraskans joined together for an Out of the Darkness Walk to raise awareness of Suicide Prevention Week. The walkers participated for many reasons: some had a family member or friend who had committed suicide, others had experienced “the darkness” themselves. They all understood that sometimes what you need is a reminder that someone out there cares and wants to help.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a person in the United States dies by suicide almost every 13 minutes, taking nearly 45,000 lives. The group notes that suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among American adults aged 18–65. In Nebraska, one person dies by suicide less than every two days on average, and it is the 11th leading cause of death.

Too many of our friends, family, and neighbors are struggling with mental illness. That’s why, during the last Congress, I proudly supported the 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed into law on December 13, 2016. This law helps children dealing with mental illness and recognizes that timely and proper treatment can save many young people from severe problems as they grow older. The law helps connect patients with treatment earlier by creating grant programs focused on intensive early intervention for infants and young children while also providing money for pediatric consultation with mental health teams.

Additionally, the law continued grants to states and local communities to help train mental health providers like psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers while also coordinating mental health services across the federal system, identifying and implementing effective and promising models of care.

Finally, the 21st Century Cures Act continued the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline program and reauthorized Youth Suicide Early Intervention and Prevention Strategies grants. These important programs save lives and promote mental wellness. They’re often the difference between a night of feeling hopeless that gets to the next morning and the loss of someone having a difficult time.

We also shouldn’t forget about the unique circumstances of our veterans, especially those facing the invisible scars of war. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that between 11 and 20 percent of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD. Research has indicated that service dogs can provide many benefits to veterans suffering from this combat-related illness, and they often act as better alternatives to prescription drugs.

Currently, however, the VA only provides service dogs benefits to physically disabled veterans. That’s why Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and I introduced The PAWS Act, which directs the VA to implement a five-year pilot program to provide service dogs to veterans suffering from PTSD. This pilot program would connect veterans with eligible organizations that train service animals and provide a grant for a service dog pairing. Veterans would also receive follow-up support from the provider for the rest of the dog’s life, helping provide relief to those coping with this terrible mental illness.

All over our country, some Americans feel as if they’re walking in darkness. Sometimes a smile or an act of kindness can help a friend or stranger struggling through a day, other times more assistance is needed. If you or someone you know is struggling, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) at any time for help.

Thank you for taking part in our democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.

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