Clay Hunt Act Serves to Prevent Veteran Suicide

By Ingrid Herrera-Yee | Feb. 12, 2016

Clay-Hunt.pngOne year ago today, President Barack Obama signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act into law. It was named in honor of Clay Hunt, a Marine veteran who died by suicide in March 2011 at the age of 28.

Clay Hunt joined the Marine Corps in 2005 and deployed to Fallujah, Afghanistan in January of 2007. During that deployment, Clay was shot in the wrist by a sniper’s bullet. During that same deployment he watched a fellow Marine sustain a mortal gunshot wound. He recovered, went to sniper school and then re-deployed with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, to Afghanistan in 2008, before the troop “surge,” and was spread across 10,000 square miles in Helmand and Farah provinces. Sixteen Marines and a Navy corpsman were killed in combat there, and scores more were wounded.

Hunt left the Marine Corps shortly afterward. He struggled with depression, panic attacks and posttraumatic stress but threw himself into veteran’s advocacy and humanitarian work, even traveling to Haiti in 2010 with other Marine veterans to help after a devastating earthquake. He focused on helping other veterans, who like himself were struggling with mental health conditions.

Then it was over. Hunt died by suicide in Houston in 2011. Family and friends said he had been battling the Department of Veterans Affairs to get his disability rating upgraded from 30%, as he struggled to find employment and his marriage unraveled.

Clay Hunt’s story brought to light a serious issue plaguing our veterans. These men and women were returning from war without sufficient support to help them transition from combat to life back at home. Many were unable to cope and lost their lives as a result. Clay’s story also brought to light the urgency that was needed to address these issues. The Clay Hunt Act was passed to do just that. It helps veterans experiencing mental health issues such as PTSD and depression, and it improves the VA’s mental health care and suicide prevention programs. This law was designed to expand suicide prevention programs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in the following ways:

  • Increase access to mental health care by creating a peer support and community outreach pilot program to assist transitioning service members.
  • Create a one-stop, interactive website of available resources.
  • Better meet the demand for mental health care by starting a pilot program to repay the loan debt of students in psychiatry so it is easier to recruit them to work at the VA.
  • Require collaboration on suicide prevention efforts between VA and non-profit mental health organizations.
  • Boost the accountability of mental health care by requiring an annual evaluation of VA mental health and suicide-prevention programs.

The potential impact of the Clay Hunt Act is profound. Sgt. Clay Hunt’s death was a tragedy, but with the passage of this act in to law, there have been significant strides to improve mental health care for veterans. Here is what has transpired in the year since the bill was enacted:

  • The “MyVA” initiative was started. It is meant to build on a model to involve the VA in collaborative efforts with other organizations, such as NAMI, in suicide prevention efforts.
  • The VA expanded and improved its Veterans Crisis Line. Nearly 490,000 calls have been answered since the Clay Hunt SAV Act was passed.
  • Referrals to Suicide Prevention Coordinators have increased: Approximately 80,000 referrals made to crisis-line counselors were made in FY 2015.
  • Crisis-line counselors have dispatched emergency responders to callers in crisis over 11,000 times last year.
  • The average wait time for mental health appointments is now just three days.
  • Last year the VA began a landmark study on the use of lithium to treat patients at risk of suicide. With 30 VA facilities participating, the study will be one of the largest medication trials for suicide prevention.

Currently, other studies are looking at the effectiveness of other therapies and medications, as well as whether genetics contributes to depression and suicidality. As you can see, there have been some gains since the Clay Hunt SAV act was passed last year. These initiatives from the VA are a good start, but more needs to be done. For example, the website and the pilot programs are still under development. Suicide is still an issue that vexes those who work to save the lives of our veterans. The latest reports still put veterans at high risk for suicide. There still needs to be support for our veterans through the transitions from service member to civilian life.

One way in which you can help is to reach out and help veterans in your community. Volunteer with organizations that focus on veterans and their families. Many organizations are now starting to collaborate more through the VA’s new initiative, the “MyVA” program; volunteer with organizations that are partnering with the VA to make an impact. You can rest assured that NAMI will continue its efforts to prevent suicide among America’s heroes as it did one year ago by helping to pass the Clay Hunt SAV act. Your help was invaluable in that endeavor. It brought forth changes in the system that are saving lives today.

“We're veterans. We fought for our country and we've done what I think are great things. Yeah, they can be horrible things, but that's war and that's the way war's always been, but we're doing good things for our country and I think we deserve a lot better coming home as veterans.”

Indeed, our veterans do deserve better.

Comments
Tsgt. Mike Whitacre,RET.
People don,t realize when a vet. gets up in the morning will this be the day that America spoiled society is going to drive you to end the battle of anxiety and loss of self-esteem the military has robbed you of and the fight for your life is with the dysfunctional practitioners at the VA.that is now the main enemy in your daily life.
For me it's my faith I have a year to get my SWK so I can assist my comrades in
their daily fight so they to can wake up as free Americans agin
1/25/2017 7:07:37 PM

Chris
I have read these and many other comments where the VA is blamed for tragedies like Clay Hunt. As a combat Vet with co-occurring PTSD/Substance Abuse in recovery almost 9 years, I can say that yes, the VA is understaffed and changes need to be made. However, I received plenty of help and treatment from the VA by both Primary Care and MH. I went without asking for help for almost 10 years before a failed suicide attempt left me broken and begging for the pain to stop. The message needs to be spread louder and clearer that asking for help is not weakness. Changes in the government are very slow, but there are many other organizations besides VA that can help---provided help is asked for. How about we stop the blame game and direct our energies to reaching out to Veterans? Today, I am a substance abuse counselor and a Peer Support Specialist, so getting through the wall of fire is possible. I had help, but I also had to put forth the effort to change and not give up.
8/24/2016 3:43:46 PM

Mark
For those who would like to help the veterans, there are many things you can do to become involved.
Check with your local VA hospital or clinic about volunteering. No special skills are needed and there are many ways to help including being a volunteer driver (of a VA vehicle) so the veterans can make it to their appointment. For long term efforts you may want to ask about volunteering for peer support.
8/3/2016 10:15:14 AM

Linda
My son served with the 82nd Airborne Division and was deployed 5 times between Afghanistan and Iraq. On January 21st, 2016, he took his own life. It had been 8 years since he was honorably discharged. He struggled with the VA to get adequate treatment for his PTSD and his traumatic brain injury. He left behind his wife of 9 months and a beautiful 7 year old daughter. We will miss him everyday for the rest of our lives.
4/15/2016 1:12:20 PM

Rachel
It breaks my heart how I hear and see how these brave people who are fighting for us, go through so much to break themselves down to make them 'war ready' but then nothing to very little to help them get 'civilian ready'. It's horrible. I would love to find out ways to volunteer, and support.. Just do as much as I can even if my voice is so small compared.
3/25/2016 3:13:00 AM

Patty Dunn
I am a post traumatic stress disorder diagnosis as well but my trauma was early childhood incest. I do not know why it has taken so long for officials to recognize that PTSD is a huge disability effecting the persons entire life. It took two psychiatric hospitalizations for my incest to come out. I have been healing since my 40's and am not there yet needing to still to integrate my personalities which sometime split with the right trigger..PTSD in the military is little different from the attacks on your body by a loved one or a friend of the family. I am hopeful that a PTSD group can be started at the NAMI office in Eugene. I there are others out there who have been unable access a group please let me know and perhaps we can get something going. Just give me your name and email address. I have a contact in with Jose Soto the Director of Nami in Lane County and he is to get back to me on whether or not a group can go at Nami. The previous person I spoke with at Nami was not sure. Will wait to see what happens. I do hope I hear from Eugene and Springfield.
2/27/2016 5:50:02 PM

Larry Carr
I have suffered with conical depression since I was 10. These stories about our veterans break my heart. I have been fired from jobs twice and whlle I have not experienced combat, I have xperienced the repercussions from the stigma of 'mental illness' and would like to help if I can.
2/25/2016 10:13:33 PM

Linda
None of our veterans should have to have a battle with mental illnesses AND the VA. It's heartbreaking that they come home to these kind of garbage.
2/25/2016 7:18:18 PM

Shannon
I am very concerned about veterans who suffer from P.T.S.D. and depression. Surely we can do more to help.
2/16/2016 3:17:11 PM

George D Patrin
The Clay Hunt Act is indeed a step in the right direction for Veteran Mental Health care reform. Clay shouldn't have died by suicide, if only VA providers had been listening. Access is better now, but to what clinic and which providers? The solution to poor mental health care is NOT gaining more access to Behavioral Health Providers, it is in integrating mental health providers in primary care clinics, and increase access to primary care teams who are not hamstrung by 15 minute 'productivity' appointments. When we get this right, suicide will decrease along with all mental health care quality.
2/15/2016 3:35:56 PM

Karen
This is so sad. Do you think a podcast on this subject would be a good idea to spread awareness? I have been trying to figure out if there was a place for people to listen whenever they need to, go to a podcast that fits their situation or ideally all episodes would be helpful.
2/14/2016 11:07:17 AM