By Megan Raposa
February 10, 2015
The Senate unanimously passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, also known as the Clay Hunt SAV Act, Feb. 3. It is now slated to go before President Obama.
The act, named after Clay Hunt, a former Marine who killed himself in 2011, calls for evaluation of existing U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) mental health and suicide prevention programs, and expands the reach of these programs for veterans.
The legislation also includes the establishment of a pilot program on community outreach. Part of this outreach involves helping colleges and universities aid veterans in transitioning into their communities.
“It’ll be a tremendous help for those colleges that don’t already have a good collaboration with the VA,” says Cathy Payne, veteran resource center director at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
While most colleges offer some degree of student psychiatric services, Payne says many campuses do not have resources or staff to advocate for student veterans.
David Shearman, the veteran office coordinator at Georgetown University, say, student veterans mental health needs tend to be similar to the needs of other students. But he says student veterans do have unique challenges.
“We try to make sure we have the resources to help all of our students,” Shearman says. “For the veterans, we try to make sure that the people providing those services either get faculty and staff training, or they have a good relationship with my office so that when the student they’re helping happens to be a veteran, that’s not in any way a barrier.”
The bill specifies neither the logistics of the pilot community outreach program, nor how it will affect colleges and universities. But Payne says she is hopeful that its passing will bring awareness to mental health and suicide prevention for student veterans.
“Having that in place, people are going to say, ‘Whoa, we didn’t realize there was such a problem,” Payne says.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, nearly half of student veterans show “significant symptoms” of post traumatic stress disorder, and a similar percentage have at some point contemplated suicide.
“Look at what happened to Clay Hunt,” Payne says. “It’s just such a sad story … I look at him, and go, ‘Yeah, he was so bright. He could have been here.’ This could have been him, but he didn’t have anyone listening and advocating.”
During the 2014 legislative session, the Clay Hunt SAV Act passed the House but was blocked in the Senate by Sen. Tom Coburn.
Jose Alvarez, a student veteran at Augustana College in South Dakota, says he hoped the bill would have passed sooner and that it would be “shocking” if the president didn’t sign the bill into law this year.
“It’s definitely a great starting point,” Alvarez says. “[Congress is] not just playing lip service to former military members. They’re actually realizing they need to put something in place to achieve these goals.”
Other aspects of the bill include starting a website with information on available veteran health care services and collaboration between the VA and non-profit mental health organizations. If passed, the bill would also establish a pilot program to pay student loans for some VA psychiatrists.
“The legislation creates the opening, and we’ll have to wait and see how the VA implements it,” Shearman says. “It will be interesting to see what kind of outreach programs they do and how the reporting goes.”