As news reports reveal growing numbers of suicide among soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and Barack Obama (D-IL) today introduced major legislation aimed at preventing suicide among active duty members of the military. The Senators' bill, the Armed Forces Suicide Prevention Act, would direct the Department of Defense (DoD) to create a comprehensive suicide prevention program including annual training for soldiers, improved instruction for field medics and post deployment assistance. The legislation authorizes six million dollars for implementation of the programs. A companion measure will be introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Leonard Boswell (D-IA).
Today's Washington Post reported that Army statistics show that 121 soldiers committee suicide last year - a 20 percent increase from 2006. This is the highest rate of Army suicides recorded since the Army started collecting this data in 1980. The Post also reported that last year about 2,100 soldiers "injured themselves or attempted suicide, compared with about 350 in 2002."
"These startling statistics should serve as a wakeup call that suicide among soldiers and veterans is more than a problem, it is an epidemic," said Senator Harkin. "Thankfully, our push to provide America's veterans with a suicide prevention program was heard last year, when the President signed the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act into law. But there is more work ahead - especially in serving our active duty military personnel. We can and must act quickly to save our soldiers who are so bravely fighting for our country."
"Since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there has been a significant increase in suicides among active-duty soldiers. This is a reality our country must face as we are engaged in two conflicts. This legislation will enhance and strengthen the Defense Department's suicide prevention programs for all active-duty military personnel. It is critical for our service members to be provided with the necessary mental health services they deserve. There can be no higher priority for America than our soldiers and their families," said Senator Hagel.
"Our nation's heroes deserve our greatest support and commitment, and we must immediately address the tragic increase in suicide rates among our active-duty service members," said Senator Obama. "The men and women who serve our country should expect nothing less than world class medical care, treatment, rehabilitation, and counseling services. Suicide can be prevented, and we must do everything we can to help those who are suffering. This bill will help ensure there are comprehensive suicide prevention programs throughout the military, and I commend Senator Harkin's leadership on this needed legislation."
Specifically, the Armed Forces Suicide Prevention Act will:
- Conduct a service-wide mental health campaign to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues, encourage people to seek help when needed, and increase awareness that mental health is essential to overall health and that treatments can promote recovery from mental illness. The campaign should raise awareness about assistance for substance abuse issues, as well as relationship and financial difficulties. An outreach campaign should also focus health professionals both on and off military installations to raise awareness of the health needs of returning military personnel.
- Implement annual suicide prevention training of all active duty, Reserve, and National Guard members and involve military leadership in outreach efforts by incorporating suicide prevention training in officer and senior enlisted training courses.
- Strengthen basic lifesaver training and training for military medics and medical personnel to incorporate recognition of risk factors for suicide, identification of signs and symptoms of mental health issues, and protocols for responding to crisis situations involving members of the Armed Forces who may be at high risk for suicide.
- Utilize crisis response teams within units to prevent and respond to traumatic events. Such teams will consist of key personnel such as medical staff, chaplains, family support staff, and peers.
- Provide post-deployment follow-up and assistance for family members and peers of members of the Armed Services on mental health problems, substance use, and financial and relationship difficulties, including information on resources to address these issues.
- Provides resources to the Department of Defense to examine innovative and effective strategies to recruit qualified uniformed mental health professionals.
- Provides resources to the Department of Defense to examine innovative and effective ways to fight the stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment.
Late last year, Harkin's push for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide a comprehensive suicide prevention program for returning soldiers became a reality through the enactment of the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Action - named after Joshua Omvig, a soldier from Grundy Center who took his own life after returning from Iraq. Harkin's legislation directs the VA to integrate mental health services into veterans' primary care, and step up counseling and other mental health services for returning war veterans.