Ricketts announces new effort to combat suicide by veterans and active military

Governor says there’s no evidence medical cannabis — which is advocated by former Gov. Kerrey and others — works

By: - June 6, 2022 1:15 pm

An interim legislative study is looking at how to make Nebraska more attractive to military retirees. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — In the past two years, 87 veterans have committed suicide in Nebraska.

That sobering statistic, and a desire to reach more veterans before they take their life, prompted state officials Monday to announce that they’re joining a national effort to prevent suicides by veterans, active military members and their family members.

With a roomful of veterans looking on, Gov. Pete Ricketts announced that Nebraska will join 35 other states in a Governor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide. Ricketts said the state’s veterans and mental health officials have already begun meeting in a two-year effort to come up with and implement a plan to improve the state’s outreach and treatment.  

‘Saving lives’

“This is about saving lives and getting access to help sooner,” said Sheri Dawson, director of behavioral health for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. “One life (lost) is too many.”

One improvement that will not be considered is legalization of medical marijuana, which some, including former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, say should be allowed to treat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Several veterans joined Gov. Ricketts in announcing a new effort to prevent suicides by veterans. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

In 2010, Kerrey joined Montel Willliams, a fellow veteran and a talk-show host, in calling for medical marijuana to be dispensed for PTSD at Veterans Administration hospitals.

When asked about that Monday, Ricketts said, “there’s no data to support that” medical marijuana can help PTSD sufferers.

One vet OK with cannabis

Outside the Capitol after Monday’s press conference, one veteran, Ed Schnabel of Lincoln, said he’d be OK with veterans receiving medical cannabis as long as it was highly regulated and didn’t lead to legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

A petition drive is currently underway in Nebraska to place the question of legalizing medical cannabis before voters in November. Petition drive organizers for Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana recently reported that they had collected about 40,000 signatures for each of their two petitions, toward a goal of collecting 87,000 valid signatures by July 7.  

In September, the Veterans of Foreign Wars reported that a California-based nonprofit, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, had studied the impact of smoked marijuana used for PTSD and found — in an FDA-regulated study — that users reported a decrease in severity of symptoms.

Vets at 50% higher risk

Dawson said 50 veterans took their lives in 2020 and 37 did so in 2021. Veterans are at a 50% higher risk for suicide than those who have not served, according to the North Carolina-based group Stop Solider Suicide.

Ricketts, Dawson and John Hilgert, the state director of Veterans Affairs, urged Nebraskans to reach out to veterans who may be struggling with depression or who are talking about suicide.

The governor said that it isn’t a “sign of weakness” to seek out help.

John Hilgers
John Hilgert, director, Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Hilgert said that for a person who is in crisis, a state hotline can offer immediate help: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). That hotline also allows texts and chats.

Kim Foundation to help

Dawson said the review of the state’s “strengths and weakness” in dealing with struggling veterans will involve the state’s mental health professionals and the Kim Foundation, an Omaha-based nonprofit dedicated to increasing awareness around mental health and suicide prevention.

Officials said it was too early to say what steps Nebraska will take. They did say that some issues to be looked at include greater access to mental health services, greater awareness of the help available and greater coordination between local, state and federal services.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.