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October 05, 2020

New Light on the Horizon for Veterans’ Mental Health

This Bulletin is brought to you by AHLA’s Behavioral Health Task Force.
  • October 05, 2020
  • Anna Stewart Whites , Anna Whites Law Office

On September 23, 2020, the U.S. House unanimously passed The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act to improve mental health care for veterans and to prevent suicide.[1] The Senate previously passed the bill, which now awaits signature by the President to become final.

This bill is named in honor of Mr. John Scott Hannon, a retired Navy SEAL Commander who served for 23 years and fought a courageous battle with post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and bipolar disorder.[2] Mr. Hannon was an advocate for mental health treatment as a longtime member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Montana.[3]
This bill will help transitioning and former service members access better care and will streamline the process for acceptance into the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care programs and for referrals to mental health providers. The bill also emphasizes advancing research into specific mental health conditions that impact the veterans’ population, including PTSD and addiction.

The VA estimates that as many as 20 veterans die by suicide each day.[4] Only six of the 20 veterans who die by suicide each day receive health care services from the VA before their death.[5] For that reason, the IMPROVE Well-Being for Veterans Act, a bill co-authored by Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and John Boozman (R-AR) to expand veterans’ access to mental health services, was included as part of the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, to help the VA reduce veteran suicides.[6]

Among other important provisions, the legislation will:

  • Provide wraparound suicide prevention services through veteran-serving community organizations;
  • Encourage partnerships between the VA and local providers or specialists;
  • Increase accountability of mental health and suicide prevention programs at the VA;
  • Help rural veterans by expanding VA telehealth care;[7]
  • Require data collection and assessment of the efficacy of new and current programs;
  • Boost research, including creating a Precision Medicine for Veterans Initiative to identify biomarkers for mental health conditions;
  • Encourage the use of innovative models for mental health care, including animal therapy, art therapy, and pilot programs;[8]
  • Establishment of clinical practice guidelines for evidence-based veterans mental health care;[9] and
  • Specifically addresses the mental health needs of female veterans.[10]

Recent years have seen an increased awareness of the need for prompt and evidence-based mental health care for veterans, particularly younger veterans and those in rural communities. The interaction between the VA and community service providers has not fully ensured that all veterans have ready access to the treatment they require as there is not a chain of command or referral process in place that is consistent from state-to-state. The bill hopes to remedy that by focusing on transition plans for veterans with mental health issues as they leave the service.

Sections 201-205 of the bill focus on suicide prevention.[11] Suicide in the veterans’ population has been a subject that has not been fully studied and addressed, and the threat appears highest during the first year after a veteran transitions to civilian life.[12] The bill encourages the creation of a network of treatment providers who work to reduce the stigma of mental health issues and to increase access to care. Awareness of the challenges that veterans face during the transition period is a focus of the updated suicide prevention and mental health care access provisions. The intentional advancement and expansion of the VA’s telehealth network is a key element of that access to care.

The law marks a huge step forward in making access to mental health services by veterans more transparent, organized, and focused. This aids not just veterans and their families as they seek mental health treatment through VA programs or in their home communities, but also service providers who will now have a better understanding of the roadmap for providing care to veterans.

The Behavioral Health Task Force thanks Kelly J. Epperson for editing this Bulletin.


[1] Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019, S. 785, 116th Cong. (2020).

[2] U.S. Senate Passes The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Improvement Act, National Alliance on Mental Illness, August 7, 2020,

[3] Id.

[4] VA Releases National Suicide Data Report, Analysis Part of VA’s Comprehensive Examination of More Than 55 Million Death Records, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, June 18, 2018,

[5] 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, September 2019,

[6] Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019, supra note 1 at § 204.

[7] Id. at § 701.

[8] Id. at § 203-204.

[9] Id. at § 304.

[10] Id. at § 601.

[11] Id. at § 201-205.

[12] The Military to Civilian Transition 2018: A Review of Historical, Current, and Future Trends, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, p. 33,