For this reason, we have partnered together to fight for America’s service men and women suffering from “invisible” psychological injuries and increasing rates of suicide.  Our first collaboration – H.R. 1308, The Veterans’ Mental Health Assessments and Screenings Act, sought to address this issue by mandating one-on-one post-deployment screenings by a mental health professional for all service men and women.   Inclusion of our language from HR 1308 in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was encouraging; however, additional provisions were added to the NDAA that once again complicated the ultimate goal.  Whereas our bill mandates one-on-one screenings once the soldiers return home, the NDAA states that one-on-one screenings will occur in the soldiers’ stationed location upon discharge and only if mental health professionals are available.  Unfortunately, this language doesn’t go far enough in creating a comprehensive program of one- on-one screenings with mental health professionals.

Recently, the Department of Defense argued to Congress that face-to-face mental health screenings would stretch their already thin staff of mental health professionals.  We are adamant that uniform one-on-one screenings are necessary to reduce the prevalence of soldier suicides and the stigma of seeking treatment for mental health injuries.  To address the inability of the Armed Services to provide more mental health professionals, we introduced H.R .3839, the Counselor Accessibility Reform and Expansion for Soldiers Act (CARES Act).  This legislation compliments H.R. 1308 by expanding the definition of mental health professional to include licensed professional counselors.  The CARES Act would increase the amount of mental health professionals available to conduct the one-on-one screenings as mandated by H.R. 1308.  Those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and suicidal thoughts should not have to wait for a physician referral for a “licensed mental health professional,” as narrowly defined by the Armed Services.

To further address the lack of mental health professionals in the Armed Services, we led a group of 50 of our colleagues to push for increased funding, specifically for mental health services in the Department of Defense budget.  We applaud the Defense Appropriations Chairman Murtha and Ranking Member Young for including $500 million in the defense budget for these purposes.  By expanding the definition of “mental health professionals” pursuant to the CARES Act coupled with this significant increase in funding, the Armed Services should finally be able to conduct a program of comprehensive one-on-one mental health screenings for each service member returning from combat.

Rep. Michael E. McMahon, a Democrat representing New York’s 13th Congressional District, is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Foreign Affairs Committees.  Rep. Thomas J. Rooney, a Republican representing Florida’s 16th Congressional District, is a member of the House Judiciary and Armed Services Committees.  Both Members are in their first term.