One Thing Congress Can Agree On: Helping Veterans Who Are Struggling With PTSD

President Barack Obama signs the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, named for Clay Hunt, which calls for evaluation of existing Veterans Affairs mental health and suicide prevention programs and expands the reach of these programs for veterans. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JACQUELYN MARTIN
President Barack Obama signs the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, named for Clay Hunt, which calls for evaluation of existing Veterans Affairs mental health and suicide prevention programs and expands the reach of these programs for veterans. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JACQUELYN MARTIN

President Barack Obama signed a bill into law on Thursday that aims to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with resources that treat mental illness and prevent instances of suicide among the group, many of whom have recently returned from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The bill, titled the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, connects veterans with mental health support through an interactive website, enables the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to recruit and retain mental health professionals, and gives veterans an extra year to attain health care without providing disability related to their service. Under the bill, the VA will also have to undergo annual evaluations.

Obama signed the bill before dozens of people in the East Room of the White House, including Susan Selke, the mother of Clay Hunt, a veteran who committed suicide in 2011 for whom the legislation is named.

“This is not just a job for government,” Obama said at a signing ceremony at the White House on Thursday. “Every community, every American can reach out and do more with and for our veterans. This has to be a national mission. As a nation, we should not be satisfied until every man and woman in uniform, every veteran, gets the help that they need to stay strong and healthy.”

When left untreated, PTSD can cause high alertness and increase adrenaline in the veterans, even in the most mundane situations. Experts say that feelings of self-guilt that may have been suppressed on the battlefield can explode into anger and rage that can force a person to isolate themselves from others. Such pain can eventually manifest into thoughts of suicide, as experienced by 30 percent of respondents in a survey conducted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in July 2014.

According to estimates by the VA, more than 20 veterans commit suicide every day. While older veterans have experienced a slight decrease in instances of suicide in recent years, the rate at which male veterans take their own lives increased by more than 40 percent. Suicide among women veterans also increased by more than 10 percent. Mental health officials within the VA say that a veteran’s decision to commit suicide derives from the pressure of transitioning from military to civilian life and difficulty of dealing with combat injuries, particularly PTSFD.

While participation in the VA system has been found to decrease suicide among servicemen and women afflicted with mental illness, an increasing number of veterans say that Congress, the president, and the VA haven’t done their due diligence in connecting more people with much needed services.

In April 2014, the VA made national headlines after a CNN investigation revealed a cover-up of delays in treatment that may have resulted in deaths. A 2013 report by the Office of the Inspector General of Veterans Affairs also cited a shortage of psychiatrists and a backlog of Medicaid reimbursements as key factors in the VA’s service gap.

The VA’s shortcomings affected Clay Hunt, whose memories of sniper attacks and colleagues’ deaths on the battlefield haunted him in the years and months leading up to his suicide. After leaving the Marine Corps, he struggled with depression, panic attacks, and PTSD — even in the midst of his veteran advocacy and humanitarian work. After several attempts to lobby the VA to upgrade his disability rating from 30 percent, find stable employment, and save a struggling marriage, Hunt turned a gun on himself in his Houston apartment, killing himself at the age of 28.

The stories of veterans like Hunt compelled two political parties that have been at odds with each other on the federal budget, immigration, and abortion to come together to address an issue that has long gone unacknowledged. Before the bill made its way to the Oval Office, both the Senate and the House unanimously voted for its passage earlier this month.

“Clay’s story details the urgency needed in addressing this issue,” Selke told the Senate during a hearing in November 2014. “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.”