WESTFORD — For three years, state Rep. James Arciero, D-Westford, has called for better mental health support for veterans on college campuses in Massachusetts. Now, that care could soon become available via an encompassing legislative bill on barriers to mental health care.
The bill was passed unanimously by the House on July 16 and includes language Arciero previously laid out in the last two legislative sessions.
This bill would implement the 988 hotline, a nationwide suicide prevention and crisis number, and further educate the public on the state’s red flag law, which allows people to report family members who are at risk of harming themselves or others with a gun, prompting a judge to suspend the person’s gun license.
Access also features prominently in the bill, with legislators demanding stronger, more available behavioral health treatment services for youth in school as well as the creation of online portals that will gather data on the youth and adults looking for mental health and substance use services.
There are close to 300,000 veterans in the state, according to recent census data, and Arciero said he hopes the bill will incentivize returning service members to pursue higher education at one of the state’s 29 public colleges while also having the support and resources in place to do so comfortably.
The state Senate passed a similar mental health bill in November. Both the Senate and the House bills address emergency department boarding, where people in need of a behavioral health bed are instead placed in an emergency room to wait for long periods of time. Each bill also seeks to hold insurers accountable for mental health parity laws.
Now, a committee composed of three representatives and three senators will meet in the coming weeks to discuss the two bills before the package makes its way to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk, according to a spokesperson for Arciero.
Arciero’s earlier legislative effort was first referred to the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, on which Arciero served for eight years. Two important contributors to constructing the bill and now finally getting it passed in the House, he said, were former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Coleman Nee and UMass.
The bill calls for the development of a training program for higher education counselors in post-traumatic stress disorder at UMass Chan Medical School, which will allow medical staff to better recognize and address veterans’ behavioral health.
Arciero also sought to develop outreach programs for veterans on campus to handle symptoms of mental illness, substance abuse and insomnia, but that did not make it into the House’s bill.
At the passing of this new, broader bill, Arciero said he is pleased to see legislators take on an important issue. Having two family members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Arciero said it’s personally important for him to provide protections to military veterans.
“These are individuals who have sacrificed it all to serve our country, and coming home and going back to colleges, there’s a lot of challenges that veterans returning from deployment (face),” Arciero said. “We certainly know as a society, especially after this pandemic and these last two years, how incredibly important access to mental health is for everybody.”
Nee, a Marine Corps veteran who served during the Gulf War, said the transition from military service to regular life is difficult. Young veterans are valued in school environments, Nee said, and they deserve support.
“Student veterans are one of the fastest growing segments of the veterans’ community here in Massachusetts,” Nee said. “These individuals bring a tremendous amount of experience, knowledge and unique perspectives to our classrooms and campuses. Unfortunately, reintegration to civilian and student life can be challenging.”
Arciero said mental health care is vital for all Massachusetts residents and that veterans specifically should be remembered in that conversation. He said he feels his years-long work advocating for veterans will finally make it into law.
“I’m cautiously optimistic with both fingers crossed,” Arciero said. “My conversations I’ve had with the chair on the House side (of the committee) have been very positive, and we feel very confident that this bill, after almost four years of work, is going to be on the governor’s desk for his approval.”