In recent weeks, President Obama signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, a landmark step in promoting access to services and in supporting efforts to reduce deaths by suicide among veterans. Nearly 20 percent of deaths by suicide in the United States each year are by veterans, particularly veterans who served in active duty and combat. Any death by suicide is one too many, and with many veterans returning from tours of duty around the globe, there have been efforts nationwide to make mental health a priority. The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act does just this, through the following steps:
1. Offers loan forgiveness for psychiatrists and psychiatric specialists: For each year of service to the Veterans Administration (VA), students participating in qualified psychiatric residency programs or working as psychiatrists under the VA can expect to receive up to $10,000 in loan forgiveness.
2. Cultivates peer support programs: The law funds a pilot program to develop peer support groups for returning veterans. Under the guidance of a certified mental health professional, local groups can form to help veterans transition from an active duty lifestyle back into their communities. There is also funding to conduct outreach to identify and recruit veterans for these groups, and to provide programming suitable to the target population.
3. Fosters partnership: Under the Clay Hunt Act, the VA is required to collaborate with nonprofit agencies to better develop its existing programs, and to perhaps seek inspiration for new ones as they pertain to suicide prevention. This is critical because a one-size-fits-all model of medicine often does not work in the mental health field. By hearing from a diverse group of professionals and stakeholders, the VA can begin to better understand what veterans need, and what might be most helpful to them as they cope with challenges faced on and off the job. Similarly, nonprofit groups can benefit from the expertise the VA has in understanding policies such as insurance or access to care.
4. Encourages transparency: The VA will compile an extensive list of its resources, and publicize them on a single website, making it easier for patients to find the services they need. Between a scarcity of information and confusion about eligibility, accessing mental health services is often a daunting task, and can be a key barrier to treatment. This will hopefully facilitate better access to care.
All of these are wonderful steps, but there are some omissions worth noting, particularly media and public health campaigns to reduce stigma. Talking openly about death by suicide is often challenging, and for those affected by suicide, carrying the load of stigma and fear can be crippling. It would be wonderful to see more press from families, friends and survivors affected by suicide, noting the availability of help, and how people of all groups can begin to make their mental health and wellbeing a priority.
Similarly, there are many minorities within the veteran subpopulation who are at particularly high risk for death by suicide, including American Indians and Alaskan Natives. Analysis of these differences between subgroups can help us tailor our mental health efforts to patients who are the most at-risk. There is increasing need to understand community and systemic factors contributing to deaths by suicide so that we can include suicide prevention in our national discourse.