President signs sweeping veteran suicide prevention bill into law

Veterans Crisis Line
Photo credit Department of Veterans Affairs
By Connecting Vets

President Donald Trump signed into law a major piece of legislation aimed at preventing veteran suicide, including one major bill focused on improving veteran mental health care.

The president signed the bill into law on Oct. 17, a little less than a month after Congress passed the Cmdr. John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act out of both chambers unanimously. That bill has been one of Veterans Affairs lawmakers' top priorities. 

The omnibus bill is named for Cmdr. John Scott Hannon, a former leader of SEAL Team Two, member of SEAL Team Six and Special Operations and policy staff officer at U.S. Special Operations Command, who retired in 2012. Six years later, Hannon died of suicide after 23 years of service. 

VA data shows roughly 17 veterans and three service members die by suicide on average each day. That number has remained largely stagnate or worsened in recent years despite increased spending and programs aimed at helping. The data typically lags behind by two years, though, making it difficult to determine whether efforts have been effective. 

Hannon received treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, severe depression and bipolar disorder at the VA in Montana. He was committed to helping others while seeking his own recovery. Volunteering with the National Alliance for Mental Illness he spoke candidly at events about his wartime injuries.

The bill aims to improve mental health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs through several efforts, including grants to groups looking to help veterans outside VA.

Those efforts include: 

  • Grants to community organizations working to help veterans in crisis;
    • If veterans with other-than-honorable discharges are referred to VA by these organizations in the grant program, they may qualify for VA mental health services.
  • Ordering VA to study complementary and alternative care such as animal therapy, yoga, meditation, acupuncture and tai chi through a pilot program;
  • Studying expansion of care to all veterans with other-than-honorable discharges;
  • Transition assistance;
  • Hiring more suicide prevention coordinators for each VA medical center (at least one for each VA hospital);
  • Increasing access to VA telehealth locations for veterans who live in more rural or remote areas; 
  • Studying how VA manages its suicide prevention resources.

Some of those measures were inspired by what Hannon himself said helped him. 

“Scott was open about his invisible wounds of war and found solace and recovery in many of the causes that also allowed him to give back to his fellow veterans and his community," Hannon's biography reads. "He was passionate about improving veterans’ access to mental health care and integrating service animals into mental health care. Scott worked closely with Montana Wild and VA Montana to develop a group therapy program for veterans that involved birds of prey. Scott was embraced on his journey to recovery by his family, friends, and community. He died from his invisible wounds of war Feb. 25, 2018." 

Hannon's family said they hoped his legacy through the bill would help his fellow veterans. 

“This is a very proud moment for my brother and our entire family,” Kim Parrott, Hannon's sister, said in a statement on behalf of the Hannon family. “This law will provide veterans greater and earlier access to the mental health care they need by requiring the DoD and VA to work together to bridge the transition between military service and civilian life and conduct research in evidence-based treatments. This has been a long journey shepherded by the shared vision and leadership of both Senators Tester and Moran, and my family thanks them and the many others who worked tirelessly to make this law a reality. Not only will veterans benefit from this work, so will their families and communities.”

The bill named for Hannon would provide about $174 million over five years for mental health care services, including the grant program for local organizations to provide help outside VA. 

The president also signed into law a bill that designates 988 as the universal telephone number of the national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline system, making it easier for those in need of help to quickly dial the potentially lifesaving service.

Lawmakers, advocates and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie were quick to praise and thank the president for signing off on the bills, particularly the Hannon bill. 

Wilkie, who has publicly advocated for the bill, said it advances the goal of increasing "local resources" for veteran mental health. 

"This law will expand mental health care services at VA facilities and at the same time provide grants to make it easier for veterans to access non-VA resources in their communities," Wilkie said in a statement. "Care in the community is a critical component of our effort to end veteran suicide. About 60% of the veterans who die by suicide aren’t getting care from VA, so it’s vital we do all we can to offer intervention and care to veterans where they live."

The new law "combines the best ideas" from VSOs, VA and mental health advocates to "deliver innovative solutions that’ll help heal invisible wounds of war through increased access to care, alternate therapies and local treatment options," said Democrat Sen. Jon Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee who represents Hannon's home state.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said the law comes at a critical time during the coronavirus pandemic when experts have warned the isolation and stress caused by the virus sweeping the country could increase suicide risk.

"Many of our veterans are suffering from daunting, sometimes overwhelming mental health challenges, that have only been made worse by this pandemic, and lack access to modern, effective and compassionate mental health care and suicide prevention services," Moran said. "(The Hannon bill) will reform mental health care at the VA ... This is a significant day for veterans." 

 

For more information on potential warning signs of suicide, click here.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go to veteranscrisisline.net.

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.
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