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Trump signs veteran suicide prevention measures into law

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 19, 2020

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump signed a bill into law Saturday that contains dozens of methods to prevent suicide among veterans, including measures to boost mental health research and staffing at the Department of Veterans Affairs and establish a multimillion-dollar grant program for state and local groups.  

Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., leaders of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the bipartisan bill had the potential to reform mental health care at the VA and improve veterans’ access to lifesaving mental health services. 

“This new law combines the best ideas from veterans, veterans service organizations, the VA, and mental health care advocates to deliver innovative solutions that’ll help heal invisible wounds of war through increased access to care, alternate therapies and local treatment options,” Tester said in a statement.  

Most notably, the bill will offer up to $174 million during the next five years to state and local groups that provide suicide-prevention services to veterans and their families. Lawmakers believe the program will create better collaboration between the organizations and the VA. They think the partnership will result in earlier identification of veterans who are at risk of suicide, giving mental health providers more time to intervene.  

The bill is called the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, named for a retired Navy commander who died by suicide in 2018 at age 46. 

The legislation comes at a particularly dire time, as experts speculate the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is worsening mental health problems across the country. Last week, Gen. James C. McConville, the Army’s chief of staff, said the pandemic was taking a toll on the mental health of soldiers and could be a factor in this year’s increase in suicides in the service. 

Suicide among veterans is disproportionately higher than the rest of the U.S. population, with an estimated 20 veterans dying by suicide each day, according to VA data. 

“Many of our veterans are suffering from daunting, sometimes overwhelming mental health challenges, that have only been made worse by this pandemic,” Moran said in a statement. They lack “access to modern, effective and compassionate mental health care and suicide prevention services.” 

Moran said the new law would improve suicide prevention research, services and programs.  

“This is a significant day for veterans,” he said.  

The new law requires the VA to establish a plan for boosting its mental health staff and creates a scholarship program to increase staff at Vet Centers. It mandates the VA to research hyperbaric oxygen therapy as a possible treatment for mental illness, as well as the possibility that living at high altitudes increases suicide risk. 

The law also orders the Government Accountability Office and the VA Office of Inspector General to initiate investigations into a host of issues, including one on the VA mental health workforce and others on VA Vet Centers and the effectiveness of the agency’s suicide-prevention outreach.  

After months of negotiations, the legislation passed through Congress with the support of Democrats and Republicans. During negotiations, a measure was omitted that would have addressed firearm safety as a method of suicide prevention. The provision would’ve directed the VA to train health care workers to talk with suicidal patients about the dangers of having easy access to guns and how to safely store them. According to the latest VA data, firearms are used in nearly 70 percent of veteran suicides.  

In addition to the Commander John Scott Hannon Act, Trump on Saturday signed into law the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020. The new law designates 9-8-8 as the universal phone number for mental health emergencies.  

Multiple suicide prevention hotlines will be united under the 9-8-8 number within the next two years. Until then, veterans can still reach the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, and then press 1, or via text at 838255.  

Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a Marine Corps veteran, was one of the lawmakers to lead the legislation through Congress.  

“It is a national step forward out of the shadows of stigma that prevent too many people from getting help and into a new era when mental health care is easy to get and normal to talk about,” Moulton said in a statement. “This is a win for every American who has been affected by mental illness.”  

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com 
Twitter: @nikkiwentling