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Veteran suicide is a national crisis. AI and machine learning can be a critical part of the solution

by: Col. Michael Hudson, USMC (Ret.)

Last month, federal lawmakers introduced the Veterans Mental and Behavioral Health Quality of Care Act of 2023, a bipartisan bill designed to address the quality of veteran mental and behavioral healthcare offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs and identify opportunities to improve the current system. This newly-proposed legislation is a step in the right direction, especially as the military suicide rate remains 1.5 times higher than civilian, averaging 17 suicides per day. Tragically, over the last two decades the unadjusted suicide rate for veterans has risen from 23.3 per 100,000 veterans in 2001 to 31.7 per 100,000 in 2020. While some years have been better than others, overall, veterans continue to struggle.

As we look for ways to support our nation’s heroes, organizations that serve and employ veterans need to ensure that they leverage all available options to empower veterans, and shift the burden from the veteran to have to ask for help to more opportunities for state and federal VA organizations, and other veteran service organizations, to proactively reach out sooner to help. Artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) technology is transforming every field, from national security to health care and education, and these technologies also have the potential to revolutionize mental health care and suicide prevention for veterans. Veteran organizations — including the VA and nonprofits — and those commercial organizations that work with and support veterans — should consider new technology as the missing piece of the puzzle to proactively identify evidenced-based red flags before the struggling veteran becomes overwhelmed. Moving upstream in detection and informed proactive mitigation will change the current models that focus on making it easier for the veterans to seek help.

State-of-the-art AI/ML models trained to analyze extensive data sets and evidence-based research, such as the Centers for Disease Control-defined categories of data correlating with high incidents of suicide, can help detect early behavioral warning signs and flag anomalies before a veteran reaches their breaking point — and ultimately, save lives.

This technology presents an opportunity to shift our overall approach to veteran mental health and wellness from the established reactive model to one that proactively invests in each individual. Too often, the burden is placed on the veteran in need to first self-assess and then seek out help on their own. Now, military and veteran organizations can leverage AI/ML technology to more quickly and efficiently identify when a veteran is at early risk and intervene before a crisis occurs, reducing the burden of care off of the veteran’s shoulders while they are grappling with PTSD and other major mental health symptoms.

Using advanced machine learning and AI models can identify service members and veterans who are at the highest risk due to research-informed indicators that cause stress and depression, such as homelessness, loneliness, financial distress, legal challenges, and substance addiction, allowing for prioritized outreach, immediate support, and reporting, with the goal of preventing tragedy before it strikes. With confidentiality top of mind, continuous evaluation, push-based alerts and secure nonbiased case management are all important elements to prevent suicide risk incidents. The military and VA’s current calendar-based wellness outreach to a subset of its members can be enhanced through the application of data and machine learning techniques to prioritize outreach to vulnerable veterans who need help at the time they need it.

By monitoring evidenced-based veteran behaviors, AI/ML can make recommendations and help veterans maintain regular check-ins, schedule appointments, and access critical mental health resources without having to make several calls to a doctor’s office or wait weeks for an appointment.

Currently, many scheduled military wellness checks do not get the full picture of a veteran’s mental health. In addition, in a time when the VA is already incredibly backlogged, appointments can take weeks to schedule and be understaffed — an issue compounded by a nationwide shortage of health care workers across all fields. Just last year, the Kaiser Family Foundation found 47% of the U.S. population in 2022 was living in a mental health workforce shortage area, and this number is only expected to worsen. These established services once again put the responsibility on already distressed veterans to self-assess, seek solutions and pursue care, only to show up for their appointment days or even months later. Being able to prioritize sparse resources is another advantage of shifting the burden from the veteran.

In 2014, the U.S. Senate declared June to be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month, in honor of the more than 13 million Americans, many of whom are veterans, that are managing PTSD. But annual awareness campaigns without sustained proactive action will continue to be suboptimized. Military leaders, federal and state VA offices, and veterans service organizations, need to start thinking of ways to use emerging technologies and innovation to address a complex issue while proactively assisting our nation’s heroes during a time of need. By leveraging AI and machine learning data, it is now possible to prioritize outreach to at-risk veterans and active service members.

Veterans and service members have already, and continue, to sacrifice so much for our country, often putting their physical and mental health on the line. It is time those working with active service members and veterans take the initiative to proactively reach out to them and provide help without the reliance on scheduled wellness check appointments, and mitigate risk factors through strong data and analytics today so that veterans realize they have options and can access the help they deserve before it’s too late. Simply, every day is PTSD awareness.

Michael Hudson is a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel. He is a vice president at ClearForce, a risk management organization. His military service included commanding a helicopter squadron, a Marine Expeditionary Unit, and, in his last active-duty billet, as the Marine Corps’ Sexual Assault Prevention and Response lead.


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