We face a devastating mental health crisis in our country, one that affects thousands across the country. The veterans community has been particularly affected by this issue. In fact, a new study from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) shows an average of 20 veterans per day died from suicide between 1979 and 2014.
Unfortunately, we have also heard stories of veterans who seek mental health care, but are turned away at VA hospitals. Our veterans make incredible sacrifices to fight for our freedoms and we must improve the mental health care system so they can receive the care they deserve. With September being Suicide Prevention Month, I want to highlight some of the action Congress has taken to address this issue.
Most recently, I joined Representative Dave Loebsack (D-IA) last week to introduce the Never Again Act, which requires the VA to provide a bed in the psychiatric department to any veteran enrolled in the VA health care system who requests in-patient psychiatric care. In response to reports of veterans being turned away from in-patient psychiatric care due to not being considered an imminent suicidal risk, this bill also requires the VA to provide full coverage for the veteran at a non-VA facility if the VA medical center cannot accommodate the request for this care. No veteran should ever be turned away when seeking out help for their mental health condition, and this will ensure it never happens again.
Veterans can also benefit from other methods of therapy that do not require in-patient care. Specifically, matching veterans with service dogs has proven to help some veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. That is why I introduced legislation to establish a pilot program at three to five VA facilities to connect veterans to local therapeutic dog training organizations. As part of this program, veterans would learn occupational skills while training the dog and after the training, each dog would be provided to a veteran. I was proud to see this legislation pass the House of Representatives earlier this year as part of a larger veterans health services bill, and I am hopeful the Senate will act to ensure its passage before this Congress expires.
Additionally, last year, a more comprehensive bill to evaluate VA mental health care and promote collaboration on suicide prevention efforts was signed into law by the president. This bill, known as The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, requires third-party evaluations and reports of the VA’s mental health care programs to determine if changes are necessary to better serve the veterans. The Clay Hunt Act also created a more centralized website with resources and information about mental health resources for veterans.
While these pieces of legislation will not completely solve the issue, they are important steps to help improve our mental health system. Perhaps one of the best actions we can take is to simply be there to support and encourage our veterans. Whether it means a phone call to check-in or spending an afternoon together, family and friends are the most critical forms of assistance for our veterans. We can all contribute to helping our veterans, and I hope you will take time to consider how you can give back to those who have given so much.
For more information, and for the Veterans Crisis Line, please visit https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/. If you have questions or comments about this or any other issue facing the federal government, I invite you to call my Washington, D.C. office at (202) 225-2015, Hilliard office at (614) 771-4968, Lancaster office at (740) 654-2654 or Wilmington office at (937) 283-7049.
Steve Stivers is a member of Congress from Ohio’s 15th Congressional District.