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House passes bill bolstering VA's ability to address veterans’ suicide

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The House on Thursday passed legislation aimed at increasing the Department of Veterans’ Affairs capacity to address veterans’ suicide and expand access to mental health resources for veterans.

The lower chamber passed the Supporting the Resilience of Our Nations’ Great Veterans Act of 2022, or the STRONG Veteran Act, by voice vote. The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.

Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Mike Bost (R-Ill.) — the top members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee — introduced the legislation in January. The bill is based on 22 bipartisan bills that have advanced through the House.  

According to data released by the VA in September, 6,261 veterans died by suicide, 399 fewer than in 2018. However, the veteran suicide rate was still higher than the rate among adults who are not veterans.

“While we were thrilled to see the veteran suicide rate drop in the last year for which we have data, it is clear that more must be done to help veterans in crisis,” Takano said in a statement Thursday.

“With today’s passage, we can help meet veterans where they are and continue our efforts to meaningfully reduce veteran suicide,” he added.

The Biden administration in November unveiled its strategy for reducing suicide among veterans and servicemembers. Among other things, the strategy includes enhancing crisis care facilities, increasing access to mental health care, as well as increasing research coordination, data sharing and evaluation efforts.

In late May, the VA unveiled Mission Daybreak, a $20 million challenge which solicits researchers, advocates, and health innovators to develop innovative methods for preventing suicide among veterans.  

Among its provisions, the STRONG Veterans Act would require the VA to ensure that it hires at least one minority outreach coordinator at each of its medical centers. The measure also looks to expand culturally competent suicide prevention at VA for Native American veterans.

The bill would also increase mental health staffing and training at VA medical centers and Vet Centers— which are community-based counseling centers operated by the VA for veterans and active-duty servicemembers.

In addition, the bill would also direct the VA to expand its peer specialist support program, which allows veterans who have recovered from mental illness and substance use disorders to help other veterans dealing with the same issues.

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