Thursday, February 12, 2015, President Barack Obama signed into law a veteran suicide prevention bill. It is an acknowledgement of the struggles veterans with PTSD and mental illness face, and the legislation is intended to reduce military suicide, an epidemic that claims lives every day. The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act will help the VA explore new strategies for suicide prevention and give student loan incentives to recruit psychiatrists to work with veterans and help them transition from active duty to veteran status. The law puts the VA on notice to submit to independent reviews of their suicide prevention programs and make the information on suicide prevention more accessible to veterans.
Clay Hunt was a Marine Corps veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, who was decorated and served with distinction. In Iraq in 2007, his wrist was wounded by enemy sniper, and this happened only weeks after he witnessed a fellow Marine get shot in the throat by an enemy marksman. Then, in 2008, he was deployed to Afghanistan. There, he also witnessed many of his fellow Marines killed. Hunt left the Marine Corps after this tour in Afghanistan. After his discharge, he struggled with depression, panic attacks, and PTSD, but immersed himself into veteran’s advocacy and humanitarian work. During that time, he was also battling the VA to get his disability rating increased from 30 percent while trying to find employment and keep his marriage together. It was his PTSD that kept him from maintaining steady employment. In 2011, at the age of 28, he took his own life after a long struggle with trying to obtain treatment from the VA for his severe PTSD. In his case, the VA failed miserably in their “duty to assist”.
This new law expands on a long history of executive actions the President has issued to improve access to mental health services for members of the Armed Forces, veterans, and their families. Specifically, the Clay Hunt Act will:
- Require third-party evaluations annually of VA’s mental health care and suicide prevention programs
- Create a centralized website with information and resources for veterans about the scope of mental health services available through the VA.
- Require collaboration on suicide prevention efforts between VA and non-profit mental health organizations.
Unfortunately, too many veterans get lost in the system. Like Clay Hunt did, they feel abandoned by the very organization that purports to want to help them. Ironically, five weeks after Hunt took his life, and 18 months after filing an appeal with the VA for his PTSD rating, the appeal finally went through, and his PTSD was rated at 100 percent.