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New bill addresses suicide in the military

May 2, 2013
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), who was sworn in on January 3, has introduced his first bill as a member of the Senate.  The bill, The Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, would establish a pilot program in each of the military services and reserve components to integrate annual mental health assessments into a service member’s Periodic Health Assessment (PHA).  The PHA is an annual review designed to determine whether a service member is “fit” to serve.

The pilot program would expand that review of fitness to include a more detailed mental health review and identify risk factors for mental illness so that service members can access preventative care. The bill would also integrate a first-line supervisor’s input, as the first-line supervisor plays an important role in a service member’s life and may be aware of relationship or financial problems but is not able to address them unless the service member speaks up.  

The results of the questionnaire would then be reviewed by mental health specialists. If problems or risk factors are identified, service members would be referred to behavioral health specialists for further evaluation and medical care. The legislation also includes privacy protections for service members so the information gathered is only used for medical purposes and not for promotion, retention, or disciplinary purposes. 

 “In 2012, approximately 349 members of the United States Military, including active duty, Guard, and Reserve, committed suicide, more than the total number of service members who died in combat operations,” said Donnelly in a press release. “This number does not even include the more than 6,000 veterans who committed suicide in 2012.  This is unacceptable. This has to end.”

The bill is named after a member of the Indiana National Guard, Jacob Sexton, who took his life in 2009 while home on a 15-day leave from Afghanistan.