Over the years mental health care and suicide prevention have been AMVETS’ top priority while advocating on Capitol Hill, providing services, and forming relationships with other organizations for the betterment of veterans. This year was no different as we created a suicide prevention training course, intervened during moments of crisis, and held Congress and VA accountable for efforts that have either shown no progress or fallen short.
AMVETS National Commander Jan Brown made the most of her testimony on Capitol Hill this year, highlighting three pressing issues we advocated for the remainder of the Congressional year: addressing our mental healthcare crisis suicide epidemic, addressing the critical needs of women veterans, and providing timely access to high-quality healthcare.
Her testimony encouraged Congress to make a significant investment in alternative approaches to mental health, asking how we are going to get a handle on this these issues if we are spending more than 90 percent of our resources on approaches that fail most veterans, most of the time.
“The bottom line, we need to stop doing the same actions, and expecting fewer deaths, it did not work when the budget was 2.4 billion dollars, and it will not work when it is well over ten billion dollars,” Commander Brown said. “We need to start making significant investments in an approach that gets us out of our flawed and ineffective model.”
AMVETS National Commander Jan Brown to the Veterans Affairs Committee February 26, 2020.
Addressing mental health issues that are specific to women is a top priority for AMVETS. The rate at which women choose to end their own lives is 180 percent higher than members of the same gender who never served. Male veterans, meanwhile, are 140 percent more likely to commit suicide than their peers who have only known civilian life.
“AMVETS is supportive of the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2019, introduced in the House as H.R. 1092 and in the Senate as S. 374,” Commander Brown said. “This legislation expands health care and benefits from the V.A. for military sexual trauma. Section 101 of this legislation adds technological abuse as an assault that the V.A. is required to provide counseling and appropriate care for.”
AMVETS also called for more timely access to quality healthcare, whether it be VA or through the veterans’ community. AMVETS realizes that the best healthcare option for veterans will provide a reliable, well run, and fully staffed V.A. first. As a support mechanism, V.A. will utilize private care when it makes sense to provide ease of care to veterans, as is often the case for veterans in rural areas.
“The VA has pledged to serve our veterans’ healthcare needs, but the means of accessing this care is different for every veteran,” Commander Brown. “There are an estimated 4.7 million rural and highly rural veterans who face a unique combination of factors that create disparities in healthcare not found in urban areas, such as inadequate access to care, limited availability of skilled care providers and additional stigma in seeking mental healthcare.”
Commander Brown’s testimony can be read here.
Below is health care-related legislation that AMVETS has supported. Bolded legislation has been signed into law:
S. 785 Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Heath Care Improvement Act of 2019
H.R. 1997 Veterans Posttraumatic Growth Act
S. 2864: Sergeant Daniel Somers Veterans Network of Support Act of 2019
S.1906 Improve Well-Being for Veterans Act
S.374. Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment & Support Act of 2019
H.R. 4154 Leave No Veteran Behind Act
It’s safe to say there were a lot of wins this year on Capitol Hill when it comes to signing veteran mental health-related legislation into law. Whether requirements in these bills will be properly enacted has yet to be seen, but AMVETS will be closely tracking these bills to see that veterans being seeing the benefits of what’s been signed into law.
In February AMVETS’ legislative leaders reviewed the most recent Clay Hunt SAV Act Report. Clay Hunt was a Marine veteran who died by suicide in March 2011 at the age of 28. Clay enlisted in the Marine Corps in May 2005 and deployed to Anbar Province, near Fallujah, in 2007. Clay was shot in the wrist by a sniper’s bullet that barely missed his head, earning him a Purple Heart.
Clay received a 30 percent disability rating from the VA for his PTSD along with two smaller ratings for other health issues after separating from the military. After moving back to Houston to be closer to his family, Clay had to wait months to see a psychiatrist at the Houston VA medical center. After the appointment, Clay called his mother on his way home and said, “Mom, I can’t go back there. The VA is way too stressful and not a place I can go to.”
Two weeks later, Clay took his own life.
Through the Act, Congress requires V.A. to provide an outside assessment of V.A. Mental Health programs annually. The first report was due to Congress in October of 2018 and the second was due in October of 2019. After neither report was made public by Congress or VA, AMVETS has taken upon ourselves to make the report available, as well as summarize the findings.
AMVETS (American Veterans) and TruGenomix, a veteran-owned precision behavioral health company is the first company to offer a clinical decision support tool to help identify those living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in military veterans and first responders, have announced a strategic partnership that will focus specifically on female veterans. Women, as well as other minority groups, have been largely underrepresented in leading studies.
“We hope that by providing women veterans with the opportunity to understand how their genes were affected by trauma exposure, it will create treatment protocols that are more precise and individualized to the needs of these women,” said Cherissa Jackson, AMVETS Chief Medical Executive.
Research suggests that individuals with PTSD are at an increased risk for suicide and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) found that women veterans were twice as likely to take their own lives compared to their non-Veteran counterparts. Prevalence rates for PTSD in women have been found to be over twice that of men; however, these studies have been unable to control for reporting and utilization bias.
“By using an objective, genomic-based assay for PTSD we can remove the biases and begin to understand true sex differences. Only then can we begin to tailor therapies to the underlying biologic changes,” said Dr. Anne Naclerio, Chief Medical Officer for TruGenomix.
In 2018, AMVETS hired a team of clinical experts with experience in eliminating barriers to access in healthcare for veterans nationwide. HEAL, which stands for healthcare, evaluation, advocacy, legislation, encompasses all necessary steps the team will take to intervene directly on behalf of veterans, service members, families, and caregivers to reduce veteran suicide, unemployment, homelessness, and hopelessness as it relates to mental and physical wellness, particularly for those who are affiliated with AMVETS and utilize Polytrauma/Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) centers and mental health services within the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and community healthcare facilities.
Since it’s short inception, the HEAL program has intervened in more than 600 crisis, saving hundreds of veterans and their families during dire situations and receiving a Vetty award from Academy of United States Veterans for their work.
In an effort to further combat suicide and raise awareness of the warning signs, the HEAL program created a suicide prevention training course. The multi-level course focuses on identifying the warning signs of someone having suicidal thoughts and how to safely intervene until professional help can arrive.
AMVETS will continue to be a driving force for mental health care in 2021. Continue to check our Facebook and Twitter for the latest and give to our programs and efforts as we strive to help veterans live their most mentally healthy lives.