A Moment of National Unity: Unanimous Passage of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act

By unanimous vote, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives have both passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act.

This striking moment of bipartisan cohesion displays remarkable national leadership and makes clear that our veterans who struggle with suicidal impulses deserve the best care they can get.  Our wounded warriors are not the weak throw away casualties of combat. They could be any of the men and women who have been willing to take the risk to serve our country.

A powerful campaign is emerging in our country and its goal is to eliminate the stigma associated with receiving help for the psychological wounds of war. Progress is being made on many fronts both within and outside of the military. Yet, for the warrior trained to put fear aside, PTSD and related difficulties can feel shameful. As a mental health professional, I can see that veterans need active help to identify and normalize any post-combat adjustment difficulties. Psychological coping mechanisms that are effective during military service take time to recalibrate to civilian life. Veterans need to learn that the impact of war conditions on the human brain is just as real and physical as a flesh wound. Like other wounds that affect parts of the human body including traumatic brain injury, PTSD and depression take time to heal and often need skilled professional treatment to do so.

Suicide is the ultimate act of despair. And it is not a momentary event. The tragedy of a life suddenly ripped away lives on in the hearts of family and friends. Fortunately, Clay Hunt’s parents, Susan and Richard Selke, refused to bear this loss privately. Along with a growing legion of other suicide surviving families such as Kevin and Joyce Lucey, the Selkes have shown the courage to be publically visible and to turn a tragic loss into a push for reform. Also deserving credit for the momentum generated for the passage of this bill is the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (www.IAVA.org).

The Clay Hunt SAV Act will improve access to mental health care and increase peer and community support for veterans. By requiring increased regular screening evaluations for veterans, it directly addresses the common problem of the delayed emergence of PSTD symptoms including suicidality.

Clay Hunt’s suicide at age 28 was particularly shocking because he had worked extensively to help prevent suicide among his fellow veterans.  And he had made a profound impact in the lives of others. After returning from Iraq, Clay worked with Jake Wood, who founded Team Rubicon, a nonprofit that uses military veterans’ skills for humanitarian aid work. The two fought together in Iraq and later brought their skills to regions such as Haiti following the hurricane devastation in 2008. Like many returning Marines, Clay was wary of stigma against inner wounds and supported others to get help. Yet he was apparently still reluctant to bring attention to his own needs. His death underscores the very need for the measures the Clay Hunt Act will bring.