VA doubles down on communication research to save veterans

Jessica Manfre
Updated onMay 3, 2023
3 minute read


Dr. Elizabeth Karras is a researcher with the VA’s Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention (COE) and has been a leading voice behind the use of public messaging strategies to…

Dr. Elizabeth Karras is a researcher with the VA’s Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention (COE) and has been a leading voice behind the use of public messaging strategies to address veteran suicide in recent years. 

Established in 2007, the COE has an overarching mission to prevent morbidity and mortality from suicidal behaviors among all Veterans by using a public health approach. 

The Center has played a critical role in the several national suicide prevention initiatives including the VA’s National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Reporting, the Veterans Crisis Line, education and trainings such as S.A.V.E. training, and paid media and outreach strategies.

Photo courtesy of Karras

A passionate advocate for communicating well, Karras has been studying the effects of how we utilize communication with veterans at risk for suicide for more than a decade and where the need for improvement lies. Since her arrival at the VA, she reports being laser focused on how to design campaigns with the right feel. “In a lot of my early work we found that there was such a big difference in what veterans wanted in messages versus what they were actually receiving. This wasn’t isolated to just the VA either but a broader issue concerning communicating with individuals vulnerable to suicide.”

What distinguishes her approach from others is the involvement of veterans as partners in her research and sharing their stories to motivate others at risk for suicide to seek help. She is currently testing these types of messages in a VA-sponsored research trial with veterans separating from military service. “While I certainly focus on all veterans, a lot of my research of late has focused on the younger veterans transitioning out of the military. They are at the higher risk for suicide and it’s vital that we reach them effectively,” she explained. “They experience unique stressors in their lives such as a loss of identity, finding new employment and housing, navigating relationships and all of the other things that come with leaving the consistency of the military at a young age. It’s my mission to study the best ways to engage with them and ensure we’re reaching them.”

“Hearing their [veterans] stories and experiences has been pretty extraordinary. It’s also been really wonderful to see how quickly the VA is adapting their strategies to reflect the most recent data to better reach veterans that may be experiencing challenges,” Karras said. 

Photo courtesy of Karras

Participating in this type of research is critical for involving veterans’ perspectives in the design of suicide prevention initiatives that can potentially help reach more than 200,000 service members leaving the military each year. “We are always looking for veterans who want to get involved in our research studies, to give us feedback on different messages or even just help spread the word about our work,” she added.

Karras expressed feeling blessed to serve veterans and couldn’t imagine not working to improve their lives. “Now that I’ve done this and felt such overwhelming reward and purpose, I can’t go back,” she said. “My work and focus is where it will always be.”

To learn more about the VA Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention, click here and read about Karras’ current study on messages targeting separating service members, click here.