VA Launches Competition to Boost Gun Safety, Other Suicide Prevention Ideas

Families of soldiers who died by suicide hold signs in support of their loved ones during the Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 11, 2021 in New York City.

Families of soldiers who died by suicide hold signs in support of their loved ones during the Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 11, 2021 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Image

Winners of the "marketplace for innovation" will receive $3 million.

The Veterans Affairs Department is offering cash prizes to businesses, organizations or individuals with ideas to reduce veteran suicides, launching a competition on Wednesday that will award a total of $20 million. 

About 70% of the nearly 6,300 annual veteran deaths by suicide are a result of gunshots and VA is looking in particular for concepts involving firearm safety. Other ideas could relate to using artificial intelligence to prioritize calls into the Veterans Crisis Line, said Matthew Miller, VA’s executive director for suicide prevention, or to identify ways to use social media find warning signs that a veteran is in danger. 

The competition, called Mission Daybreak, will create a “marketplace for innovation around suicide prevention,” Miller said. Winning submissions will have to demonstrate they can reduce veteran suicides by 10%, or around 650 per year. 

VA launched the first of two phases on Wednesday, opening the door to applicants until July 8. The department will then select 30 entities to advance to the second phase, who will all receive at least $250,000 in prize money. Those groups will present a demonstration of their product in November. Two grand prize winners will receive $3 million, while the next eight finishers will receive between $500,000 and $1 million. 

The competition will differ from normal grant programs as the winners will not necessarily engage in any long-term work with VA, but rather hand over their ideas. The winning ideas will be selected for their capacity for rapid development and deployment, Miller said, as well as their scalability. In addition to ideas connected to gun safety, VA is soliciting submissions related to machine learning and AI. The department receives 2,000 calls to its crisis line per day, but currently answers them in the order in which they come in. It is hoping for ideas that will help it automatically triage those calls so the most acute cases are answered first.

Other focus areas include reducing barriers to asking for help, reaching veterans with “right-place, right-time solutions” and incorporating family and community into veteran well-being. 

VA Secretary Denis McDonough said despite his department’s efforts to reduce veteran suicide, those deaths as a result of firearms remain “stubbornly high” and said it must use “every tool available” to bring them down. Asked about the role VA can play in the gun safety debate after an individual shot and killed 19 children and one adult in Texas on Tuesday, McDonough told reporters Mission Daybreak illustrated how the department can make a positive contribution. 

“The most important thing that we can do in this debate is continue to innovate in the places where we’re innovating,” McDonough said. “Obviously, the most fruitful area to date has been lethal means safety…so we’re going to continue to innovate in that space.”  

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