OPINION

Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention bill is a welcome start

Jeff Hensley of Fort Worth, a retired Navy fighter pilot who fought in both Iraq wars, places American flags on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., March 27, 2014, representing the 1,892 veterans and service members who died by suicide that year. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)
Jeff Hensley of Fort Worth, a retired Navy fighter pilot who fought in both Iraq wars, places American flags on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., March 27, 2014, representing the 1,892 veterans and service members who died by suicide that year. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

With the U.S. Senate’s unanimous consent last week, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act headed to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature.

That penstroke will bring some much-needed assistance to quell a quiet crisis — record numbers of suicides and suicide attempts among our nation’s veterans.

The bill, named in honor of veterans’ advocate Marine Cpl. Clay Hunt, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and died by suicide in March 2011 at 28, passed the House of Representatives earlier this month — also with unanimous support.

As Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, co-sponsor of the Senate bill, wrote in a statement this week: “It’s tragic to hear of men and women who serve their country, then suffer because they don’t get the help they need.”

“Our country’s obligation to members of the military begins with military service and continues long after the service ends. Mental health care is just as important as every other kind of health care. Too often, it’s overlooked or inadequate.”

“The invisible wounds of war cannot go unnoticed,” his Senate colleague Joni Ernst’s statement read.

Our veterans are at significantly higher risk of suicide than civilians — about 40 percent to 60 percent higher, according to a recent study.

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That increased risk crosses age lines, ethnicities and gender. It’s true for veterans regardless of when they served and whether they experienced combat firsthand. It’s an alarming development that we haven’t quite figured out how to address.

The suicide prevention bill is a push in the right direction. It will:

• Establish a pilot peer-to-peer support program to help veterans in their transition from active duty and improve access to mental health services for those who need them.

• Increase collaboration between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and non-profit mental health groups working to prevent suicide among veterans.

• Offer incentives to attract more psychiatrists to work within the VA system and encourage them to stay.

• Require annual evaluation of the VA’s mental health care and suicide prevention programs to ensure they are working as they should.

It will take dramatic efforts to reduce the rate of suicide among our veterans. The provisions in this bill are a welcome start.

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