Suicide Prevention Bills Signed into Law

November 17, 2020

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(This article first appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of the American Postal Worker magazine)

On October 17, a pair of bills designed to help prevent veterans’ suicide were signed into law. Both measures received substantial support from veterans’ groups in recent months, and passed through Congress without any significant objection.

S.795, the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019, is named for a retired Navy commander who died by suicide in 2018 at age 46. The bill will offer up to $174 million over the course of the next five years to state and local groups that provide suicide-prevention services to veterans and their families. Suicide among veterans has historically been disproportionately higher than the rest of the U.S. population, with an estimated 20 veterans and service members dying by suicide each day, according to the latest statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The bill makes updates related to VA transition assistance, mental health care, medical care for female veterans, and telehealth care. In doing so, the bipartisan bill has the potential to reform mental health care at the VA, and improve veterans’ access to lifesaving mental health services.

Lawmakers believe the program will create better collaboration between the organizations and the VA, and that it will result in earlier identification of veterans who are at risk of suicide, giving mental health providers more time to intervene.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie praised the new law’s key improvements in efforts to better reach veterans in times of emotional or mental instability. The legislation comes at a particularly dire time, as experts speculate the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is worsening mental health problems for everyone across the country. General James C. McConville, the Army’s Chief of Staff, said the pandemic was taking a toll on the mental health of soldiers and could be a factor in this year’s increase in suicides in the service.

In addition to improving suicide prevention research, services and programs, the new law also requires the VA to establish a plan for boosting its mental health staff and creates a scholarship program to increase staff at Vet Centers. It mandates the VA to research hyperbaric oxygen therapy as a possible treatment for mental illness, as well as the possibility that living at high altitudes increases suicide risk.

This law also orders the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the VA Office of Inspector General to initiate investigations into a host of issues, including one on the VA mental health workforce and others on VA Vet Centers and the effectiveness of the agency’s suicide-prevention outreach.

After several months of negotiations, the legislation passed through Congress with the support of both Democrats and Republicans. During negotiations, a measure was omitted that would have addressed firearm safety as a method of suicide prevention. The provision would have directed the VA to train health care workers how to talk with suicidal patients about the dangers of having easy access to guns and how to safely store them. According to the latest VA data, firearms are used in nearly 70 percent of veteran suicides.

S.2661, known as the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020, was also signed into law. This bill requires the Federal Communications Commission to designate 9-8-8 as the universal telephone number for a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline, for use by both veterans and civilians.

Multiple suicide prevention hotlines will be united under the 9-8-8 number within the next two years. Until then, veterans can still reach the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, and then press 1, or via text at 838255.

Sources: Military Times, Stars and Stripes

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