Obama will send condolence letters for military suicides

President Obama will start sending condolence letters to the families of service members who commit suicide while deployed, a reversal of longstanding but unwritten government policy, the White House said Wednesday.

In a statement released by the White House, Obama said he had "decided to reverse a long-standing policy of not sending condolence letters to the families of service members who commit suicide while deployed to a combat zone."

The president called the issue "emotional, painful, and complicated," and said his decision was not made "lightly" but came "after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy."

"They didn’t die because they were weak. And the fact that they didn’t get the help they needed must change," the president said.

The policy reversal comes after a months-long review by the administration following emotional lobbying by several military families. 

In May, leaders of the Senate Military Family Caucus, Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerHillicon Valley: Ocasio-Cortez clashes with former Dem senator over gig worker bill | Software engineer indicted over Capital One breach | Lawmakers push Amazon to remove unsafe products Ocasio-Cortez blasts former Dem senator for helping Lyft fight gig worker bill Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE (D-Calif.) and Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrBlood cancer patients deserve equal access to the cure Senate Intelligence report triggers new calls for action on election security Senate Intel report urges action to prevent Russian meddling in 2020 election MORE (R-N.C.), spearheaded a letter to the president urging him to make the change.

"Perpetuating a policy that denies condolence letters to families of service members who die by suicide only serves to reinforce this stigma by overshadowing the contributions of an individual's life with the unfortunate nature of his or her death," the letter stated. "In addition, it further alienates families who are already struggling to cope with the death of a loved one. It is simply unacceptable for the United States to be sending the message to these families that somehow their loved ones’ sacrifices are less important."

In the House, Congressional Mental Health Caucus co-chair Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) has taken the lead on the issue along with Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). The two introduced a resolution on the issue last year and urged Defense Secretary Robert Gates to change the policy in an April 2010 letter.

Suicide rates among soldiers and Marines have been climbing steadily since combat operations began in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now exceed the civilian rate at about 20 suicides per 100,000 troops.

The decision earned immediate praise from mental health advocates.

"This is an important step that can help eliminate the stigma associated with suicide and provide valuable emotional support to families," Mental Health America President and CEO David Shern said in a statement.

Mental Health America's board of directors passed a resolution last year urging the change. The resolution said that "the lack of acknowledgment and condolence from the President can leave these families with an emotional vacuum and a feeling that somehow their sacrifices may not have been as great as others who died while in the military."

Updated at 12:48 p.m.