Washington, D.C. —The Senate Armed Services Committee voted this afternoon to include Senator Joe Donnelly’s Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act of 2014 as part of the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Donnelly also helped pass several provisions aimed at improving mental health care for servicemembers and their families. The national defense bill, which has been signed into law for 52 straight years, authorizes annual defense programs and spending. The bill received bipartisan support in the Senate Armed Services Committee and will now advance to consideration before the full Senate later this year.
Donnelly said, “This is an important first step. I am pleased to see the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act included in the committee’s final defense bill because addressing military suicide cannot wait. There is no one solution to prevent military suicide, but there are commonsense steps we can take to help our servicemembers before it’s too late. The Sexton Act would start making those changes immediately. I will continue to work nonstop with my friend Senator Roger Wicker and colleagues on both sides of the aisle to see this through to the finish line so that the Sexton Act can be signed into law by the end of this year.”
Donnelly introduced the Sexton Act on May 7, 2014, and joined forces with Senators Wicker (R-MS) and Blumenthal (D-CT) to successfully advocate for the bill’s provisions to be included in NDAA as an amendment. This followed an announcement last week that 10 organizations endorsed Donnelly’s bill, including the National Guard Association of the United States, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
The Sexton Act of 2014 would ensure that mental health is evaluated regularly and as a central element of a servicemember’s overall readiness by:
- Requiring annual mental health assessments for all servicemembers, including members of the Active, Guard and Reserve components. Right now, the military provides the most effective mental health screening only for those who are preparing for or returning from deployment, despite research that shows the majority of military suicides occur among servicemembers who have never deployed.
- Establishing a working group between the Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services to find innovative ways to improve access to mental health care for members of the National Guard and Reserve, where service members often rely on civilian health insurance and providers. Suicide among Guard members hit a record high in 2013.
- Requiring an interagency report to evaluate existing military mental health practices and provide recommendations for improvement, including peer-to-peer programs that Donnelly has proposed in the past.
- Ensuring that seeking help remains a sign of strength by protecting the privacy of the servicemember coming forward.
Donnelly’s introduction of the Sexton Act followed the Department of Defense announcing on April 25, 2014 that the country lost 522 servicemembers to suicide in 2012. Early data show the toll for 2013 at more than 470 servicemembers. While suicides among active duty servicemembers declined modestly, suicides among members of the National Guard continued to rise, hitting a record high last year. Already in 2014, military leaders have publicly expressed concern over an unprecedented spike in suicides rates so far this year.
The Sexton Act is named after Indiana National Guardsman Jacob Sexton, who took his own life while home on a 15-day leave from Afghanistan. Donnelly has been working with Jacob’s parents to help prevent one more family from going through what the Sexton family experienced after losing Jacob in 2009.
Additional Provisions of Interest that Donnelly Helped Pass Relating to Mental Health Care for Servicemembers and their Families:
- Assessing Suicides in the Reserve Components: Would require DoD to develop a standard method for collecting, reporting and assessing suicide data and suicide attempt data among members of the National Guard and Reserves. This would ensure data is accurate and suicides are not undercounted among members of the National Guard and Reserve.
- Assessing Suicides Among Military Families: Would require DoD to develop and implement a program to track, retain and analyze information on suicides among military dependents. This would enable DoD to track military family suicides.
- Improving Mental Health Recommendations: Would require DoD to report to Congress on the feasibility and advisability of implementing recommendations provided by Institute of Medicine on improving mental health resiliency among servicemembers. It would require DoD to make progress in planning to implement recommendations from the Institute of Medicine on mental health initiatives.
- Removing Limits on Mental Health Services: Would remove limits on inpatient mental health services to put these services on equal footing with the rules for other medical and surgical care. This would be a move toward parity between mental and physical health care in DoD.
- Strengthening Privacy Protections for Mental Health Information in Military Justice Proceedings: Would strengthen privacy protections in the military justice system for a servicemember’s mental health records or communications with a mental health professional. This would help protect servicemember privacy in seeking mental health care.