News Details

Joe Donnelly: Nation must do more to prevent military suicides

by Joe Donnelly

Source: Indianapolis Star
Published: Wednesday 26 June, 2013

“It is one thing to lose someone you love in the war. It is a whole other thing to lose them to the war.”

— father of Jacob Sexton

Indiana National Guard Specialist Jacob Sexton, a 21-year-old from Farmland, Ind., committed suicide in 2009 while home on leave from Afghanistan. What caused him to take his life, like so many servicemembers who have committed suicide, remains a mystery. It is one our nation must dedicate itself to solving, so we can prevent these tragedies from cutting short the lives of promising men and women and devastating the families who love them.

The Department of Defense, military services, and reserve components have made significant efforts to increase awareness of mental health challenges and establish or improve suicide prevention programs. Yet, we are still falling short. Last year, 349 servicemembers committed suicide, more than the 295 killed in combat in Afghanistan. As we withdraw, the number of combat-related deaths will decrease, but there is no guarantee that the number of military suicides will diminish. Moreover, since the military started keeping statistics in 2008, more than half of the servicemembers who committed suicide never deployed. Over eighty percent never saw combat.

We can and must do more. Knowing that the stigma of seeking mental health assistance still exists, we must improve the current system while addressing common fears of demotion or social isolation or other believed negative repercussions of saying, “I need help.”

The current mental health systems rely on an individual’s willingness to self-report suicidal thoughts and seek out assistance. The back-up is if family or peers identify changes in behavior and recommend that the servicemember seek assistance. Unfortunately, as Jacqueline Garrick, Acting Director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, testified in March before Congress, “The majority of servicemembers [who committed suicide] did not communicate their intent for self-harm, nor did they have a known history of behavioral health problems.”

There is no miracle cure for preventing suicide. But we can improve our methods to identify risk factors so there is time to access preventative care. I believe we can do this by improving existing tools for health assessments, soliciting first-line supervisors’ input, and ensuring these actions protect soldiers’ privacy and therefore also their careers.

Jacob was a remarkable young man who cared for the children he met while serving his country, asking his parents to help organize coat drives for Afghan children. Jacob’s father contacted me after watching the confirmation of now-Secretary of Defense Hagel, when I questioned Hagel about better preventing military suicides. Mr. Sexton shared Jacob’s story and told me about his family’s dedication to helping prevent any more families from going through the same heartbreak.

With the Sexton family in mind, I introduced my first bill, the Jacob Sexton Suicide Prevention Act of 2013, whichwould ask military health experts to develop and put in place a pilot program in each of the military services and reserve components to integrate more robust mental health assessments. The pilot program would expand the annual Periodic Health Assessment computerized questionnaire to include a more detailed mental health screening to better identify risk factors for mental illness so that servicemembers could be referred to specialists for face-to-face evaluation and follow-up care.

The program would also integrate a first-line supervisor’s input, as this person plays an important role in a servicemember’s life. A corporal or sergeant may be aware of relationship or financial problems—leading risk factors for suicide—but is not able to address them unless his or her direct report speaks up.

Essential to the effectiveness of this proposal is protecting privacy for servicemembers so information gathered is only used for medical purposes and not for promotion, retention, or disciplinary actions. We need to move past the stigma of seeking mental health assistance, and only with privacy assurances can we do so. Our soldiers need to know that reporting a need is a sign of strength, not weakness. And that saying, “I need help,” should in no way hinder their career.

In early June, the Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously supported an amendment I offered to the annual defense authorization bill to require DOD to assess the feasibility of using computer-based screening and report on the design of the pilot program in the Jacob Sexton Act. We are now one step closer to our goal.

This effort is about getting soldiers like Jacob the help they need before it becomes too late. This is about preventing his family from reliving their tragedy every time they hear about another servicemember committing suicide. This is about protecting the lives of those who protect our freedoms. This is about honoring their service. We owe it to them, and to their families, to make this commitment.