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Time for change? ‘I’ve lost more soldiers to suicide than I have to enemy combatants’

Crystal Graham
veteran depression
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A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation to develop and provide recommendations for a comprehensive strategy to tackle mental health issues across the U.S. Department of Defense.

U.S. Representatives Rob Wittman (VA-01), Derek Kilmer (WA-06), Chrissy Houlahan (PA-06), and Guy Reschenthaler (PA-14) introduced the Servicemembers Mental Health Improvement Act, which would establish a mental health task force within DoD, comprising both DoD and non-DoD mental health experts.

The DoD already has a Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee. In March, the Secretary of Defense issued a memorandum on the next steps on suicide prevention in the military based on the recommendations of the committee.

“Our servicemembers make incredible sacrifices for our nation, and they deserve our unwavering support in addressing the challenges they face on and off the battlefield,” said Rep. Wittman. “Ensuring the psychological health of our warfighters and access to proper mental health treatments and services must be a top priority for Congress.”

From 2016 to 2020, DoD reported that 456,293 active duty servicemembers were diagnosed with mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse and PTSD.

Studies indicate that servicemembers are:

  • five times more likely to suffer from major depression compared to civilians
  • six times more likely to experience intense anger compared to civilians
  • 15 times more likely to endure post-traumatic stress disorder compared to civilians

These disorders account for the highest number of hospital stays and rank as the second most common reason for outpatient visits among servicemembers.

The American Psychiatric Association is thankful to Reps. Kilmer and Wittman for introducing the legislation.

“In seeking to establish a Mental Health Task Force at the Department of Defense, this important legislation would promote a more holistic strategy to addressing behavioral health agency-wide, which, in turn, would help improve our nation’s ability to support the mental health of servicemembers and their families,” said APA CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A.

The Servicemembers Mental Health Improvement Act is endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association; American Psychological Association; AMSUS, The Society of Federal Health Professionals; Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States; Fleet Reserve Association; Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A.; K9s For Warriors; Military Officers Association of America; National Alliance on Mental Illness; National Guard Association of the United States; National Military Family Association; Service Women’s Action Network; Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors; Vietnam Veterans of America; and Wounded Warrior Project.

Rep. Kilmer hopes a mental health task force will improve overall health within the Department of Defense and ensure Congress is well equipped with data on how to act on behalf of those who serve.

“In one of my meetings with a military leader, I asked him what kept him up at night,” said Rep. Kilmer. “He didn’t say ‘budget cuts,’ or ‘terrorists.’ Rather, he told me, ‘The thing that keeps me up most is mental health. I’ve lost more soldiers to suicide than I have to enemy combatants.’ That’s got to change.”

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Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.