By BRUCE SCHREINER Associated Press

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Suicide prevention legislation focused on Kentucky’s veterans started advancing Tuesday as lawmakers pursue a strategy meant to better serve those who joined the military.

The bill, with bipartisan backing, cleared the House Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection Committee to advance to the full House. It’s aimed at ending the scourge of military and veteran suicides, which occur at a rate far higher than in the general population in Kentucky and the nation. Supporters say statistics show more than 100 veterans took their lives annually in recent years in Kentucky.

Many services already exist, so the goal is to reduce the stigma of seeking help and better tailor services to meet the specific needs of people who served in the military, said Republican Rep. Michael Meredith.

“I think it’s connecting the dots to those services that already exist and finding out how we can improve those for the veteran population,” he told the committee.

One potential way to reduce that stigma is to connect veterans in need of help with others who also served in the military, said Meredith, the bill’s lead sponsor.

The measure would create a suicide prevention program in the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, geared to help active duty and retired military members, as well as their families.

Those running the program would work with community partners, nonprofit groups and state and federal programs to reduce barriers to mental and physical health services, he said.

“I would say this bill is a first step and it’s not a final destination,” Meredith said. “The bill is about breaking down barriers and creating communication among multiple government agencies and nonprofits.”

The program would raise awareness of the issue and the resources available to those who might consider taking their own life, Meredith said.

“We want to connect these individuals and their families with trained and qualified mental health providers, as well as advocate for those at risk,” Meredith said earlier this month. “They’ve sacrificed a great deal for us, it’s time for us to stand up for them.”

The role of the VA is to make sure Kentucky’s 295,000 veterans and their families receive all the benefits and services they earned, according to its website.