Weekly Columns

Imagine answering the phone and the voice on the other end is a doctor telling you that your child is receiving medical attention at a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health facility to treat a mental illness. This happened to one Arkansas mother several years ago who reached out to my office for assistance. Neither the young Arkansas airman nor his family realized he was living with a mental illness until doctors diagnosed him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In the following months, his mental illness led him to attempt suicide. 

He was lucky. He survived. Too often that is not the outcome. VA estimates 22 veterans commit suicide every day. This trend is tragic and unacceptable. 

These invisible injuries are why we struggle to identify at-risk individuals. As a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, my colleagues and I are working to fully understand the scope of mental illness in our veteran community. One thing is clear; VA lacks the personnel, services and proper tools to help veterans facing mental illness struggles. 

More than 8,000 veterans commit suicide each year. This number is more than the number of American troops killed in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The President missed an opportunity to address this nationwide epidemic in his State of the Union speech. Our veterans deserve improved VA mental health services and support in Washington. 

Congress has an opportunity to deliver help to veterans living with mental illness by supporting The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act

This legislation would improve mental health care and suicide prevention resources for veterans by increasing access to mental health programs, providing incentives to recruit and retain psychiatrists to treat veterans and enhancing resources for members of the military transitioning to civilian life. The legislation also requires VA to evaluate its mental health programs using metrics common to mental health practitioners to determine the success of its programs. This will help VA more efficiently use the taxpayer funding it receives to support the programs most effective for our veterans.  

There are a number of non-profit mental health organizations that do outstanding work for our veterans but have struggled to gain the cooperation of VA in their efforts because of outdated laws. That will no longer be the case, this legislation gives the Secretary of the VA full authority to cooperate and share resources with non-profit mental health organizations working to prevent veteran suicides.   

Our veterans should never face an uphill battle to get the care they earned. Last week, the Senate VA Committee met for the first order of business in the 114th Congress – approving this bill with a bipartisan vote of 15-0. Our veterans deserve this care. That’s why I cosponsored this legislation. The House approved this bill earlier this month and I’m confident the Senate will follow its lead.  

It is my hope that Congress will reaffirm its commitment to our veterans in the 114th Congress by having The Clay Hunt SAV Act be the first piece of legislation that we send to the President for his signature and enactment into law.

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