Senate defense bill tackles military suicides

The Senate Armed Services Committee voted Thursday to include measures in its defense policy bill aimed at curbing the number of military suicides, which officials fear could spike this year.  

The committee adopted an amendment sponsored by Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act of 2014, which would require annual mental health assessments for all service members, not just those who have deployed.

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“This is an important first step,” said Donnelly in a statement Friday. “There is no one solution to prevent military suicide, but there are commonsense steps we can take to help our service members before it’s too late."

Donnelly's amendment would also establish a working group between the Pentagon and Health and Human Services Department to find new ways to improve access to mental health care for members of the National Guard and Reserves. 

Pentagon statistics showed that in 2013, suicides declined among active-duty personnel, but increased for reservists, and hit a record high among National Guard members. 

The provision would also require an interagency report to evaluate existing military mental health practices and provide recommendations for improvement. 

In addition, the Senate's bill would require the Pentagon to develop a standard method of collecting, reporting and assessing suicide data and attempt to gather data on National Guard members and reservists. 

The bill would also assess suicides among military families, and require the Pentagon to develop and implement a program to track, retain and analyze information about military dependents. 

It would remove limits on receiving inpatient mental care, to put it on equal footing with other medical and surgical care. 

Privacy protections would also be strengthened, to ensure that seeking mental health care did not affect a service member’s career or potential for promotion. 

For the provisions to become law, the defense bill would need to be passed by the full Senate. Those measures would need to remain in the version reconciled with the House's defense bill, gain passage in both chambers and be signed by the president.