February 12, 2016

By Ingrid Herrera-Yee

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.

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