Clay Hunt served in the United States military. After returning home, he committed suicide. His name will be remembered for its inclusion in the recently passed Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, but aside from that Hunt is no different than any of his fellow service members. All of those who have served in the military, especially during the times of war that have plagued the last decade and a half, have also experienced trauma and difficulties adjusting to life at home. A disturbingly high amount of them take their own lives.
For far too long, the federal government has ignored or refused to properly address mental health issues for returning U.S. veterans. The stigma of mental illness in the military goes back for centuries, and the trauma soldiers experience has only been seriously studied in a scientific manner since “shellshock” was first described in World War I. Now, even with our modern understanding of PTSD, seeking help for mental health issues can be considered taboo. The Clay Hunt SAV Act is the first, most important step the federal government has taken towards both acknowledging the VA’s past mistakes in regards to mental health and working to correct them.
There are many aspects of the law that will be beneficial for veterans’ mental health services. The law calls for the establishment of a pilot program to repay educational loans for psychiatrists of the Veterans Health Administration, providing an incentive for mental health professionals to pursue a career with the VA. It also calls for a community outreach pilot program, creating a peer support system and peer-to-peer network for veterans around the country. The law will force the VA to publish a website that “serves as a centralized source to provide veterans with information regarding all of the mental health care services provided by the Secretary.” The transparency of available mental health services will provide a small step towards breaking the taboo. The law also makes the Secretary of Veterans Affairs accountable for evaluating and reporting mental health care for all veterans.
It would be naive, of course, to assume that this new law will solve all of the issues involving mental health for returning veterans. The problem has deep roots. It is an epidemic. As of last year, the VA reported that about 22 veterans commit suicide every day. That rate is “well above” that of the general, civilian population. Between 2009 and 2011, the number of male veterans under the age of 30 who had committed suicide increased by 44 percent. The number of female veterans who had committed suicide increased by 11 percent during that same time frame.
There are several organizations that have been helpful in both ending the stigma of mental illness and providing treatment for returning veterans. The Wounded Warrior Project and The Mission Continues, which provided a fellowship for Hunt to help his friend Jake Wood launch Team Rubicon, are great examples. Private organizations, of course, should not be solely responsible for the problems caused by the federal government. Addressing the Senate, Hunt’s mother Susan Selke explained how the government directly contributed to her son’s death. “Clay’s story details the urgency needed in addressing this issue,” Selke said. “Despite his proactive and open approach to seeking care to address his injuries, the VA system did not adequately address his needs. Even today, we continue to hear about both individual and systemic failures by the VA to provide adequate care and address the needs of veterans.” Congress and presidents send our nation’s youth to war, and for far too long they’ve failed to deal with the consequences and the trauma that their decisions have created.
The Clay Hunt SAV Act is an official acknowledgment of those mistakes. There’s a reason it obtained such strong bipartisan support, passing unanimously in the Senate with a vote of 99-0 and being signed into law by President Obama. The VA has been in desperate need of reform. This act won’t solve its many other issues, or even the issue it’s intended to help, but at least it’s an acknowledgment of past mistakes and a step in the right direction. If it helps reverse the tragic trend in veteran suicide statistics just a little, it should be considered a success.