SAN ANTONIO – Twenty U.S. veterans are dying by suicide every day, and the VA reports that approximately 14 of those 20 are typically not under their care. Statistics like these prompted a bipartisan group of U.S. senators to draft a bill that would bring sweeping changes to the Department of Veteran Affairs' mental health services.
Senate Bill 785, also known as the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, has now passed the Senate and House and is headed to President Donald Trump’s desk for approval.
The bill does the following:
- establishes increased accountability over the department’s mental health and suicide prevention programs;
- expands VA tele-health capabilities to better serve rural veterans;
- bolsters and expedites federal research capabilities;
- directs the VA to embark on a precision medicine initiative that will improve how mental health conditions are diagnosed and treated;
- makes necessary improvements to the VA mental health workforce.
South Texas veteran Victor Salazar enlisted in the U.S. Army at 17 years old.
“I was still in high school, but I felt it was a duty. I enlisted for eight years, and I was deployed to Iraq, where I received a Purple Heart for injuries in combat,” Salazar said.
Salazar returned home in 2008 with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and had trouble coping.
“At times, I had to seclude myself and take a minute to breathe and remember I am back home, and the enemy is not around the corner,” he said.
Salazar didn’t seek mental health help for years.
“Mental health is widely misunderstood, and there’s a negative culture associated with it, especially in the military. Even a trace sign of weakness to a soldier makes us feel inadequate,” he said.
That’s why Salazar is thrilled to see Senate Bill 785 prioritizing changes to things like the VA’s mental health diagnosis and screening process.
“Not everyone that they see will fit the parameters they need to see or allow them into a mental health provider. A lot of them, myself included, will say, ‘Let me tough it out. I don’t need help,’” Salazar said.
Once veterans are in the system, Salazar said outreach needs to be more accessible, so he champions the bill’s proposed expansion of the telemedicine services.
“Especially for those in rural populations that can’t get to seek help in a metropolitan city,” he said.
Salazar serves many of those veterans now as a liaison for the Texas Veterans Network through the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG). He gets to help other veterans find the resources he once needed so badly.
“Just like the battlefield, in the civilian population, we never leave a fallen comrade behind. Just remember, we all have your six. We can’t do it alone. Remember, we’re here to help you,” Salazar said to the veterans of South Texas.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie voiced his support for the bill, saying in a statement:
“The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act is an honest and bipartisan solution to an issue that demands Congress' immediate attention.”
Any veteran, family member or friend concerned about a veteran’s mental health can contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 or text 838255. Trained professionals are also available to chat at www.veteranscrisisline.net. The lines are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.