Roe, federal task force director host town hall on veteran suicide

Jonathan Roberts • Dec 14, 2019 at 5:59 PM

On Dec. 8, Jack Stewart lost his son to suicide after a battle with mental illness. 

Less than a week later, Stewart — who is the vice president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, East and a Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network council member — was at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home sharing his story with U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, and Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, executive director of the PREVENTS task force focused on ending veteran suicide. 

“I think it’s very important, as it’s a matter of public health, to reduce and eliminate the stigma about suicide,” Stewart said. “We need to increase the awareness that there’s people dying and they’re not going to come back — and that affects the family, it affects the people around them.” 

As Stewart shared his story, Van Dahlen was nearly brought to tears as she searched for the correct words to say. 

“I hear those stories every day,” she said after the meeting. “I think what was so touching and moving about Jack’s story is that he had been fighting for his son’s life — we should have a better system so that with a father who’s trying to save his son has more resources.”

Stewart said his son’s family wasn’t acknowledging his son’s death as a suicide, something Van Dahlen told him “we have got to change.” 

“It was so painful to hear that the family is not being open about, I understand they’re afraid or embarrassed, but that’s so destructive,” she said, saying that not acknowledging a suicide as a suicide can be damaging to those around the person, especially children. Stewart’s son left behind a daughter. 

“We can do better — we need to do better,” Van Dahlen said. “It shouldn’t be this way.” 

Saturday’s town hall was part of a series of discussions Van Dahlen and Roe have held across Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District, focusing on suicide prevention. 

“I think it’s pretty clear that there isn’t a more important topic in our nation or in our world right now,” Van Dahlen said. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 47,000 Americans committed suicide in 2017 — nearly 1,200 of which were Tennesseans. And while Van Dahlen’s task force was created to focus on suicide among veterans, she hopes to cut down the number of suicides among all populations. 

“These are preventable deaths,” she said, “but it has to be a public health focus — not just awareness, but a different kind of awareness that leads to action.” 

Roe “needs to see” on so-called red flag laws before supporting them

Stewart’s son committed suicide with a firearm, which account for more than half of all completed suicides, despite making up a relatively small number of attempts. 

Extreme Risk Protection Orders, or “red flag laws,” are intended to reduce the number of firearm-related deaths — including suicides — by giving law enforcement, family members or medical professionals the opportunity to petition a state court to order the removal of firearms from a person who may present a danger to themselves or others. 

And though the legislation has some bipartisan support, Roe said that while “there’s no doubt” suicide with firearms “is a problem,” he doesn’t feel red flag laws will “prevent what we want to prevent.” 

“A public health approach of education and treatment is going to help more,” Roe said. “I would have to see (any bill with red flag laws included), I would have to look at the specifics of something that would take away someone’s Second Amendment rights.” 

Roe undecided on congressional future

Earlier this month, Roe told the Johnson City Press his decision on whether to run for a seventh term “will be a family decision ... a personal decision.”

On Saturday, Roe reiterated his statement, saying he will wait till around Christmas where he will get his family together and decide on his future. 

“It won’t be impeachment votes or those kind of things (that influence my decision), it’ll be a family decision,” Roe said. “When you get on 150-200 airplane flights a year you get kind of tired of flying, and when you get home and your dog growls at you because they don’t know who you are you start thinking ‘maybe I should be home more.’

“It’s a personal decision, and we’ll be letting that information out pretty (soon),” Roe added. 


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