Thursday, May 14, 2014
Wicker part of effort to prevent military suicides
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to meet the parents of Jacob Sexton – a member of the Indiana National Guard who committed suicide while on leave from Afghanistan in 2009. The Sextons have been dedicated advocates for raising awareness about suicide prevention in hopes of helping other military families. Jacob’s story inspired the “Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act of 2014,” which I introduced with Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) on May 7.
Unfortunately, Jacob is one of many American heroes we have lost to suicide – a growing tragedy among U.S. troops in recent years. Early estimates show that more than 470 service members took their own lives last year. This follows an alarmingly high rate in 2012, when America lost more active-duty troops to suicide than in combat in Afghanistan. Rates of suicide among veterans are similarly troubling, underscoring the urgent need for better mental health care in the military.
Targeted Improvements to Mental Health Services
The “Jacob Sexton Act” would be a critical step toward improving the military’s ability to identify members struggling with mental health issues. The legislation would require annual in-person mental health screenings for all service members – not just those being deployed. Currently, those in the deployment cycle get the most consistent screenings, while members of the National Guard and Reserve may not have the same access.
Although suicides by active-duty troops have recently declined, suicides by National Guard and Reserve members are still on the rise, reaching record numbers last year. In addition to mental health assessments, my legislation with Sen. Donnelly would also target improvements to the existing care provided to these forces.
Specifically, the bill would establish a working group between the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Health and Human Services to identify and recommend better approaches to the military’s mental health practices. DOD would also be required to give Congress a report each year detailing how it is responding to mental health issues and follow-up care.
Military Suicide Prevention on Senate Agenda
I am encouraged by the bipartisan support already shown in Congress to address this terrible problem and to ensure that our service members get the assistance they need. Last year, Sen. Donnelly and I – both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee – offered an amendment that laid the groundwork for the “Jacob Sexton Act” during consideration of the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It was unanimously adopted by the committee, and we are optimistic that the latest version of our legislation will again be incorporated into NDAA when debate begins at the end of the month.
America’s troops face unique challenges in fulfilling their missions on and off the battlefield, which is why access to adequate mental health care is so important to their well-being. Addressing military suicides is one way Congress can send a signal to service members that they and their families will have the resources they need for help. In emphasizing effective care and patient privacy, the “Jacob Sexton Act” would bring us closer to lowering what have become heartbreaking statistics.
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