President Obama signed a bill this month that aims to enhance access to mental health care and reduce the number of suicides for veterans. The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, or SAV Act, is the latest federal law to help the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) combat the increasingly high rates of mental health disorders, like posttraumatic stress disorder and depression, experienced by veterans.
The SAV Act is named after Marine Sergeant Clay Hunt of Texas who experienced post-traumatic stress after serving tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sgt. Hunt was eligible for and attempted to use VA mental health services, but reported long delays in access to treatment and lack of comprehensive services. He died by suicide in 2011.
President Obama said the reforms of the SAV Act will bolster the accountability of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs mental health services and provide more suicide prevention support for returning soldiers and veterans. The SAV Act:
- requires annual third-party evaluations of VA’s mental health care and suicide prevention programs;
- creates a centralized website with resources and information for veterans about the range of mental health services available from the VA;
- creates a three-year pilot program using peer support to assist veterans transitioning from active duty; and
- requires collaboration on suicide prevention efforts between VA and non-profit mental health organizations.
The new law also has a provision in it to allow the repayment of education loans for psychiatric professionals working for the VA. An individual can receive payments of up to $30,000 each year if they agree to work for the VA for two or more years, among other requirements.
The SAV Act will augment the mental health services available for veterans in Alaska. At least 30 veterans died by suicide in 2013 (17.5% of all suicides that year). Not all veterans are listed on the death certificates as such, so the number could be higher than reported. At least 300 veterans died by suicide in Alaska between 2004 and 2013, according to the Bureau of Vital Statistics.
While the VA has increased mental health services provided in Alaska in recent years, there continues to be a strong need for suicide prevention services for veterans. Of the veterans engaged in mental health services in Alaska in federal fiscal year 2014 (October 1, 2013 – September 30, 2014), the VA reports eight veterans died by suicide, 28 attempted suicide, and 70 were identified as being at “high risk for suicide.” That is an increase over the previous year (FFY2013), when five Alaska veterans engaged in services died by suicide, 24 attempted suicide, and 47 were identified as being at “high risk for suicide.”
Alaskans have increased their efforts in recent years to ensure that quality suicide prevention resources and services are available for veterans. The Alaska State Legislature passed a bill in 2012 that designated a military seat on the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council to address suicide among active duty members of the military and veterans. The Alaska Forget Me Not Coalition – a coalition comprised of the State of Alaska, Alaska National Guard, the VA, all branches of the military, mental health agencies, and civilians – has increased its capacity in the last year and continues to advocate for increased mental health services for active duty members of the military, veterans, and their families. The Coalition is working to enhance comprehensive and culturally relevant mental health services available for all Alaskans, particularly in rural areas where services can be limited.
The Division of Behavioral Health incorporates veteran suicide prevalence in its Gatekeeper QPR training and provides resources for veterans and active duty service members that may need mental health services. Alaska Careline Crisis Intervention also provides support for veterans seeking help through its crisis line at 1-877-266-4357 and through its website at www.carelinealaska.org. The National Veteran’s Crisis Line offers veterans access to caring, confidential, VA responders 24 hours a day by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1, or by visiting www.veteranscrisisline.net.
For more information on VA suicide prevention resources and services visit: http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/
For more information on the State of Alaska suicide prevention resources and services visit: http://dhss.alaska.gov/dbh/Pages/Prevention/programs/suicideprevention/
For more information on the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council visit: http://dhss.alaska.gov/SuicidePrevention/