$20 Million VA Suicide Prevention Competition Presentation Proposal Finalists

A website for Native American veterans to participate in traditional talking circles and tell stories with trusted elders. An app that locks a gun safe for a preset time or requires a second person’s approval to open it. A virtual reality headset for veterans on both sides of the justice system – guards and inmates – to use when stressed or depressed.

These are just some of the 30 veteran suicide prevention proposals that were on display Friday at an office building in Washington, D.C., as finalists in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Mission Daybreak competition pitched their cases to the judges hoping to win. up to $3 million and make their idea a reality.

“There’s not one that hasn’t impressed me, and there are several that really approach issues from a unique perspective,” Matthew Miller, VA suicide prevention director, said in an interview with Military.com during Mission Daybreak Demo Day. “I have seen unique perspectives on lethal means and firearms safety. I have seen unique perspectives and plans applied to the Navajo Nation and Native veterans, unique risk prediction applications and integration of biometrics. So exactly what it was intended to do, lots of ideas put together into blueprints that could be applicable to VA.”

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The VA launched Mission Daybreak earlier this year in an effort to seek new perspectives and innovative ideas to combat the suicide epidemic, which, despite declining rates in recent years, still kills thousands of veterans. every year.

The contest has a total of $20 million up for grabs. The 30 finalists have already won $250,000 each, and 10 other entries that didn’t make it to the final won “Promise Awards” of $100,000 each.

Among the finalists, two will take home the first prize of $3 million, three runners-up will win $1 million and five third will receive $500,000.

The department announced the finalists last month, after which the proposals entered a “speed-up” phase to be polished before Demo Day. Demo Day isn’t the only factor in determining the winner, but it gave finalists the opportunity to pitch to the judges in person, as well as meet and pitch their ideas to other managers and members of the Interested VA and Pentagon congressmen, among others.

In a setup similar to a school science fair, each finalist on Friday had a table full of videos and posters or other props while judges with clipboards walked over to each and heard the pitches.

One of the finalists is Televeda, a web application proposal where Native Americans can participate in a support group that incorporates their traditions and rituals. Their table was sparse, with just a small woven table runner and an arrowhead, but they seemed to generate great interest from those who stopped by.

In addition to having few mental health resources that recognize their culture, Native Americans have unique challenges that contribute to a higher suicide rate than the general veteran population, including historical trauma, said Mayank Mishra, co-founder and chief technology officer of Televeda.

“Any other professional… who studies this population has always come to the same conclusion: please incorporate their traditional practices and culture,” Mishra said. “However, this stuff ends as a sentiment or a white paper, so we hope to present here the first operational plan, which is scalable and includes a culturally appropriate web interface and a method that can be applied tribe by -tribe using agnostic symbols like storytelling and talking circles.”

Several proposals also addressed gun security, including Vara Safety, which started as a gun security company that relied on biometrics to access the safe and has now developed an app where users who know they are in distress can keep the safe locked for a set amount. of time. The app also allows users to enable bipartisan approval for opening the vault, as well as a feature that will send happy photos and videos of loved ones to display on the vault when it is open.

There was also the Overwatch Project, which seeks to train veterans to talk to their veteran friends about gun safety. They lured Demo Day attendees to their table with a unique hashtag: “JustFKNAsk.”

“It’s basically the ‘Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk’ model except instead of booze and cars, we’re talking about guns and suicide,” said Casey Woods, executive director of Overwatch Project. “So if you have a buddy who’s struggling, while you’re here to support them, help them, [you can ask] what’s going on with their guns, can you keep them, can you secure them?”

Other projects on display Friday included BioMojo, which is developing a virtual reality program for prison guards and inmates who are veterans who can provide them with an AI therapist or a friendly face for talking or calming situations; Same Grain, which functions as a social networking site or dating app to connect veterans with things in common to support each other or veterans with therapists and other professionals; and Team DSS, which uses AI to help veteran crisis line responders interpret callers’ emotions and intentions.

The judges will now digest what they saw on Demo Day, and the winners should be announced by the end of the month. Whether and when any of the winners will then be brought into the VA will depend on the contracting processes, Miller said.

“During the last two years of available data, [which] did not include Mission Daybreak type of interventions, we saw about a 10% reduction in veteran suicides,” Miller said. ideas.”

The 30 finalists who were on display can be found here.

— Rebecca Kheel can be contacted at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: VA selects 30 programs for suicide prevention competition

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