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Defense

How Congress Plans to Prevent Military Suicides

Lawmakers hope to use an annual defense bill as a vehicle for mental-health screenings.

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A shooting at Fort Hood last month has pushed military mental health back into the congressional spotlight.(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Jacob Sexton, a 21-year-old member of the National Guard, fatally shot himself inside an Indiana movie theater during a two-week leave from Afghanistan in 2009.

Sen. Joe Donnelly will unveil legislation Wednesday named after Sexton that would require service members to get an annual in-person mental-health assessment. Donnelly hopes it helps stop others from taking their own lives.

 

"This is about working nonstop with Jacob's parents to prevent other families from experiencing that same pain," the Indiana Democrat said in a video obtained by National Journal that will be released Wednesday.

Donnelly's legislation, formally called the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, follows the Pentagon's latest suicide numbers released late last month. The report found a decrease in the number of reported suicides among active-duty troops, but an increase in reserve and Guard members killing themselves.

There were 319 suicides reported among active members in 2012, compared with 261 in 2013, according to preliminary data. But suicide within the ranks of reserves and National Guard members increased from 203 in 2012 to 213 last year.

 

And while suicide is historically underreported, the Pentagon says a total of 841 service members attempted suicide at least once in 2012.

Meanwhile, the number of service members who kill themselves after they leave the military has increased dramatically. The VA estimates that 22 veterans commit suicide each day, totaling about 8,030 veterans every year.

Many service members already have an annual mental-health screening, but Donnelly's bill is aimed at closing the gaps for in-person assessments. For example, Air National Guard members currently have an annual online assessment, but face-to-face examinations take place only every five years.

Lawmakers and service organizations worry that the stigma attached to mental-health issues keeps service members—both past and present—from asking for help or reporting mental-health problems. Attempting suicide is currently considered a crime under the military's rules.

 

"Right now, the best and most consistent screening is happening only for those within the deployment cycle, and it leaves reservists and Guardsmen like Jacob underserved," Donnelly said.

In addition to the mental-health screenings, Donnelly wants an annual report from the Pentagon to the Armed Services committees detailing the screenings and what care or follow-up was recommended. The Defense Department would also have to submit a report on how to improve its response on mental-health issues. And a committee to improve mental-health services for National Guard and reserve troops would be formed with the Department of Health and Human Services.

Donnelly isn't alone in his search for solutions. Lawmakers have introduced a handful of other proposals to address mental-health issues in the military. Some argue such measures could help prevent a shooting like the one at Fort Hood last month, when Ivan Lopez, a 34-year-old Army specialist, fatally shot three people and injured 16 others before turning the gun on himself.

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Republican Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, and Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia have introduced the Medical Evaluation Parity for Service Members Act in their respective chambers. Instead of requiring annual in-person mental health screenings, the legislation would require screenings for military recruits and for reserve and National Guard forces that transfer to active duty.

Donnelly and other lawmakers hope to get their proposals included in the annual defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act. The bill has been passed for the last 52 years, and it's likely the best vehicle for avoiding partisan fighting. And Donnelly's legislation will get early bipartisan support, with Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker expected to endorse the proposal.

Donnelly originally introduced a version of the bill last year, with a pilot program on mental health screenings instead of annual in-person screenings for all servicemembers. The Pentagon was required to submit a report with feedback on screening tools included in the program, as part of the last year's defense bill.

The report—part of a bipartisan push spearheaded by Donnelly—also asked for an assessment of new tools that could be used to improve mental-health screenings and better identify suicide-risk factors for service members. Donnelly received the report in March, and used it to help craft his new legislation.

"There is not one solution, there's no cure-all to prevent suicide. But this problem is not too big to solve. We can start by improving our methods of identifying risk factors before it is too late," he said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Donnelly tried to get the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act of 2013 included in last year's National Defense Authorization Act.

This article appears in the May 8, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.

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