Marine Clay Hunt received a hero’s welcome when he returned home to Texas after serving as a sniper in Afghanistan and Iraq. Struggling with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, the Purple Heart-winner became a widely-recognized advocate for veterans. In 2011, two years after leaving the Marines, the 28-year-old became one of the 8,000 veterans who commit suicide every year.
Earlier this week, four years after Hunt’s suicide, the United States Senate unanimously passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, and President Barack Obama will likely sign it into law. Among other things, the new law would create a comprehensive outreach program to address veterans’ mental health and provide financial incentives to psychiatric doctors who work with veterans.
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“While we are a little bittersweet, because it is too late for our son Clay, we are thankful knowing that this bill will save many lives,” said Clay Hunt’s mother, Susan Selke, in a statement.
The recently passed bill provides a good starting point to help an at-risk population, but it’s a small step forward in addressing a longtime problem that has only been growing in severity, experts say. Veteran suicide claims the lives of 22 veterans each day. At around 30 suicides per 100,000 veterans, the suicide rate is more than double the rate for the general population.
The reasons for the high suicide rates are not entirely clear, but researchers say that military life exposes soldiers to a series of risk factors that place them at a heightened suicide risk, even though someone in the military is usually healthier physically than someone in the general population.
“Going into the military isn’t going to increase your risk of suicide,” says Martha Bruce, professor of sociology in psychiatry at Cornell University. “It’s the experiences either during [service], or in the transition, or after.”
First and foremost, combat exposes soldiers to traumatic life and death situations, and depression and PTSD may result. Others soldiers return with brain injuries. All of these ailments have been linked to increased risk of suicide.
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Experts point out that even those who return from service mentally healthy and without injury issue face a tough life transition when they return home. Many cannot find immediate employment and struggle to adapt to the culture of civilian life more broadly. Only 72% of veterans of the last decade’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were employed in 2013, according to government statistics. Struggling to adjust, some turn to alcohol, which is another risk factor for suicide. One in four veterans exposed to heavy combat binge drinks at least once a week, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Shaped by the what Bruce calls the “self-reliant culture” of the military, veterans may be reluctant to seek help even when they recognize that they have a problem. “Culture plays a big role when it comes to not necessarily who gets distressed, but what people do in response to that,” says Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “The culture in the military and, certainly with veterans, is a very stoic one traditionally.”
An Air Force anti-suicide program initiated more than a decade ago aimed to tackle the cultural issue by making service members feel comfortable reporting their conditions, Moutier says. And that’s a big part of what the recently passed Clay Hunt Act seeks to do. Peer support counselors will work with veterans in local communities to make addressing mental health issue feel more culturally acceptable.
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“You have to go to where people are, both in physical location as well as in their mindset,” Moutier says.
Suicide researchers say the bill is a step in the right direction, but they also acknowledge that the complexity of the issue makes it difficult to know what the legislation’s long-term effect will be.
“There isn’t a panacea that’s going to reverse the trend,” says Mark Kaplan, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Suicide is one of the most complex public health problems out there.”