The Senate this week passed an amendment that would reshape the Defense Department's behavioral health and suicide prevention programs, compelling each service to adopt common practices.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., submitted the provision to the $631 billion defense authorization bill. Her amendment mirrors a bill she submitted in June.
"This is a major step forward in Congress really focusing on the issue of mental health of our service members, and it has not been done before," Murray, the chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said today.
Her proposal seeks to standardize the Defense Department's varied suicide prevention programs. Each branch of the armed forces takes its own approach, according to a 2011 RAND Corp. study.
The Army, Navy and Marines lack formal policies to restrict troubled service members from obtaining lethal means, and none of the armed services offer guidelines describing the benefits of reaching out for help, according to the RAND study.
Murray's amendment also takes steps to streamline the sharing of records between the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs; it encourages both the Pentagon and the VA to hire combat veterans as peer counselors for service members in behavioral health programs; and it expands access to behavioral health programs for the families of service members.
"It really is prevention," she said. "It helps us by reaching out to the family members who are on the front lines, and the peer to peer counseling, which we know is a really important part, but is not part of the services today," she said.
Suicides in the military started climbing considerably in 2005, and the trend has not abated despite major investments in new programs and outreach efforts across the services.
This year, the number of suspected Army suicides reached 166 by October, surpassing the 2012 total of 165.
Murray's amendment has one more hurdle to being adopted. It has to go to a review by the House Armed Services Committee before the House and Senate can negotiate the differences between their separate defense bills.
Claude Chafin, a spokesman for the Republican-led House committee, said lawmakers would work to resolve the bills soon. They must pass the final bill before the end of the year. He declined to comment on the Murray amendment.
Murray said the Defense Department would have to go to work immediately on implementing the behavioral health reforms if the House passes the amendment and President Obama signs the bill.
Also this year, Murray requested a Pentagon review of each service's behavioral health programs following complaints about variances in post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses at Madigan Army Medical Center. The Pentagon is still carrying out that review, and it has not reported its results to the Senate.