WASHINGTON – Key senators on Wednesday pressed Pentagon officials and other experts for solutions to the military’s suicide crisis and highlighted the need to expand access to mental health counseling.
“I have believed mental health among service members is a readiness issue and in order to foster resilience and build troop fitness, our service members need the tools to feel less overwhelmed and stressed in addition to having access to mental health services as needed,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, DN.Y., who chairs the Armed Services Committee’s panel on personnel.
Gillibrand convened the hearing after an investigation by USA TODAY found soldiers in Alaska, the epicenter of the Army’s suicide epidemic, faced long waits to see mental health counselors. One soldier said that after informing behavioral health clinic staff he was having suicidal thoughts, he was informed he would have to wait a month before seeing a counselor.
Sen. Thom Tillis, RN.C., said the nation will face a shortage of 250,000 mental health care providers by 2025.
“We don’t train enough of them,” Tillis said. Mental health professionals face low pay, high administrative demands and a workload that “often burns them out,” he said.
“While the subcommittee can’t fix these problems for the nation, we can look to improve access to mental health in a Military Health System,” Tillis added.
Counseling sessions by video, particularly for troops in remote locations, could be an option to help address the shortage, the senator said.
An Alaskan army base is the epicenter of military suicides. Soldiers know why
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, as mandated by Congress, has begun to put together an independent commission to study suicide at nine military bases. Three of the installations are in Alaska, which last year had 17 confirmed or suspected suicide deaths among the 11,500 soldiers stationed there. Harsh winter weather, physical isolation and lack of access to mental health providers are among the problems soldiers said contribute to the suicide crisis there.
The suicide rate for troops is similar to that of society as a whole. However, the military can exercise great control over the lives and mental health care of troops and expects to have a lower rate of suicide.
“Suicide rates among our service members, and our military families are too high because (the Department of Defense) is responsible for protecting our service members – just as they’re responsible for defending our country,” said Richard Mooney, acting deputy director of Defense Health Services Policy and Oversight. “We must do everything possible to prevent suicide in our military community. We’re doing this by encouraging help seeking behaviors, eliminating stigma and enabling access to mental health clinical services.”
Gillibrand noted that preliminary data for 2021 show a 10% decline in suicide deaths among troops, but said the 518 deaths is “still far too high.”
All told, since 2001, more than 120,000 troops and veterans have died by suicide, Chris Ford, an Air Force veteran who leads a non-profit group called Stop Soldier Suicide, told the committee.
“I’m deeply disheartened by the rates of suicide in our military,” said Karin Orvis, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office.
“Every suicide is heartbreaking, resulting in the horrifying pain of losing a loved one,” she said. “This drives us every day to find answers to ensure those who need help, ask for and receive that help. And to be certain that not another son or daughter, brother or sister, or mother or father must also live with the searing pain and emptiness that never goes away.”
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