U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
By Michael V. Cusenza
Twenty veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces die by suicide each day. In the past six years, 270,720 Americans have taken their own lives—45,120 of whom have been veterans or service members, according to the RAND Corporation.
These alarming numbers spurred vets, active duty military, advocates, medical experts, and elected officials to rally Saturday for immediate action to better support service members and veterans and ensure they have access to the care they need.
Following a Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee hearing led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) last week, the senator unveiled a new, two-pronged approach to begin addressing the crisis. According to the National Institute on Drug and Abuse, 50 percent of military personnel believe seeking help for mental health issues would negatively affect their career. As such, Gillibrand is calling for a review of the Military Command Exception for any changes that can be made to make mental health care more accessible to service members. The Military Command Exception provides a list of requirements for military mental health professionals to report visits by service members to their commanders. These rules include vague requirements such as: harm to self, harm to others, harm to mission, special personnel, inpatient care, and other special circumstances. In a letter to the Department of Defense, Gillibrand notes that consistent and sustained mental health care is vital to combating the crisis of military suicides, and service members must be able to trust mental health providers to keep confidentiality.
Gillibrand also is calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs and DOD to improve the support veterans receive during their transition from military service to civilian life. Periods of transition have been identified as a particularly vulnerable time for veterans and service members. According to DOD, nearly 40 percent of veterans or service members who died by suicide had either entered or exited service, or had experienced a geographical move in the last 90 days or would in the coming 90 days. Veterans who have left service within the past year are 2.5 times more likely to die by suicide than their active duty counterparts, and the rate is even higher among female veterans. The program to assist veterans as they transition to civilian life, the DOD’s Transition Assistance Program, currently consists of a meeting with a counselor to identify a pathway once leaving service. The actual training consists of several workshops and classroom sessions that educate service members on areas such as benefits and resources for finding a job, and is approximately 1-2 weeks long. Gillibrand is calling on the VA and DOD to work more closely to build a comprehensive transition program that provides more internships, reintegration programs, and on-the-job training to help veterans as they transition from military service to civilian life.
“Suicide in the military community—both among current service members and veterans—is a serious and devastating problem, and it is painfully clear that we are not doing nearly enough to address it,” the senator said. “That is why today, I am calling for new action to give our service members and veterans the support they need.”