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Senate passes bill aimed at improving mental health of veterans and reducing suicides

The Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed a bill that would improve mental heath care and suicide prevention resources for veterans like Justin Eldridge of Waterford, who took his own life after battling post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a statement after the Senate passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., co-sponsor of the bill and ranking member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, recognized Eldridge, who “braved mortar fire and snipers in Afghanistan.”

Eldridge joined the Marines in 2001 and served until taking a medical retirement as a sergeant in 2008. In an interview after his death in October 2013, Joanna Eldridge said her husband tried to overcome the trauma he experienced during an eight-month tour in Afghanistan but could not.

He tried drug combinations, underwent counseling and therapy and spent time in VA hospitals, she said.

“Tragically, he slipped through the cracks at his local VA facility and eventually took his own life,” Blumenthal said. “As brave as he was on the battlefield, he could not win his war at home. We have an obligation to keep faith with our veterans, and this legislation — providing an impartial review of VA mental health programs, more centralized information and outreach, more support for VA psychiatrists — constitutes an important step.”

Joanna Eldridge was Blumenthal’s guest at President Obama’s State of the Union address last month.

On average, 22 veterans commit suicide a day, which amounts to about 8,000 veteran suicides in the country each year. The bipartisan legislation aims to reverse that trend by calling for annual independent evaluations of mental health care and suicide prevention programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, among other provisions. The measure, unanimously passed the Senate by a vote of 99-0 Tuesday and unanimously passed by the House last month, now goes to the president.

The bill was named after Clay Hunt, a Purple Heart recipient and Marine veteran who committed suicide in March 2011 at the age of 28. Hunt, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, was honorably discharged from the Marines in April 2009. After returning home, he suffered from PTSD and struggled with inadequate care at his local VA hospital before taking his own life.

Blumenthal said the goal is to “make the VA the pioneer and champion of mental health care.”

The bill would also consolidate and improve existing mental health programs, make suicide prevention information more readily available, enhance resources for transitioning veterans, particularly for those returning from combat, and provide new incentives to attract more psychiatrists to treat veterans through the VA.

Along with Blumenthal, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who also co-sponsored the bill, spoke on the Senate floor before the vote, urging his colleagues to vote in favor of the measure.

“It’s evident by the staggering numbers that our military and Veterans’ Affairs programs are not effectively treating post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD, and other mental health illnesses that can lead to suicide,” McCain said. “There are too many disconnected and ineffective treatment programs, and as a result our service men and women suffering from the bureaucracy.”

Local veterans indicated their support for the measure.

“This is the beginning of a life-saving and life-redeeming action that will not only embrace the hearts of the American people, but, more importantly, it will reach out to the suffering psyches of those servicepersons plagued with the unhopeful, abysmal, and anguish-driven potential to perform the ultimate final exit,” said Barry Bernier, state commander for Disabled American Veterans. “We now have an entrance into a world of hope and peace on earth for these very deserving men and women.”

j.bergman@theday.com

Twitter: JuliaSBergman 

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