How Congress Plans to Prevent Military Suicides

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

A fallen soldiers memorial is seen in front of the podium where the memorial service that US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will attend for the thirteen victims of the shooting rampage by US Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan on November 10, 2009 in Fort Hood, Texas. Hasan, an army psychiatrist, killed 13 people and wounded 30 in a shooting at the military base on November 5, 2009. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jordain Carney
May 7, 2014, 1:03 a.m.

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.

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.

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