06/21/13 Last week, Senators Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) successfully offered an amendment designed to address the growing problem of suicides in the US military. Their amendment was unanimously adopted by the Senate Armed Services Committee during the debate and passage of the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This amendment builds upon S. 810, the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, introduced by Senator Donnelly and co-sponsored by Senator Wicker, that would require a pilot program to screen servicemembers for mental health problems and refer them for care by behavioral health specialists. Donnelly and Wicker introduced the amendment to require a Department of Defense report on the possible implementation of the pilot program required under the Jacob Sexton Act.
Donnelly said, “I am pleased the Committee unanimously voted to adopt our amendment to evaluate improvements to the military’s suicide prevention efforts. With this amendment, we make significant strides toward passing into law the Jacob Sexton Act, designed to better identify servicemembers struggling with mental health issues before it is too late. I thank Senator Wicker for joining me in this effort to get those who are struggling with mental health issues the help they need before they resort to taking their own life.”
“After a record number of suicides by service members in 2012, significant steps need to be taken to curb this disturbing trend,” Wicker said. “The Donnelly-Wicker amendment is a step in the right direction as we work to address this critical need. I am pleased to join Senator Donnelly in supporting those in our military who suffer from mental health issues.”
The bipartisan amendment would require the Department of Defense to assess computerized assessment tools identified in the Jacob Sexton Military Prevention Act of 2013 that could be implemented to better screen servicemembers for mental health needs and suicidal risk factors. The bill would implement a pilot program to integrate annual mental health assessments into a servicemember’s Periodic Health Assessment and to solicit the input of a first-line supervisor while protecting servicemembers’ privacy. The design of this pilot program would benefit from further evaluation from military health care professionals, and the report required by the Donnelly-Wicker amendment directs that evaluation to be completed no later than February 14, 2014, in time for consideration of the FY 2015 NDAA.
Last year, we lost more servicemembers to suicide (349) than in combat in Afghanistan (295). This number does not include the more than 6,000 veterans who committed suicide in 2012. According to the Defense Suicide Prevention Office at the Department of Defense, since they began keeping detailed records in 2008, less than half of the suicide victims had deployed and few were involved in combat. Research has shown other risk factors, such as relationships, legal or financial issues and alcohol or drug usage play a larger role than a servicemember’s deployment history. Further, many of these suicide victims did not communicate their intent, nor did they have known behavioral health histories.
Senators Donnelly and Wicker are dedicated to working with their colleagues to ensure the psychological needs of servicemembers and veterans are adequately addressed, and that they have access to resources such as counseling without fear of negative effects on their careers.