Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner introduces bipartisan bill to help stop mental health stigma in the military
Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (NPP, R) of Puerto Rico, along with representatives Tim Ryan (D) of Ohio, Stephanie Bice (R) of Oklahoma, and Guy Reschenthaler (R) of Pennsylvania seek to eliminate the stigma of mental health in the Armed Forces by identifying ways to encourage servicemembers to seek help when they need it.
An estimated 30,177 active-duty personnel and veterans of the post 9/11 wars have died by suicide. This is four times higher than death during combats according to a study from the Watson Institute at Brown University, conducted in collaboration with the Frederick S. Pardee Center at Boston University. The Department of Defense (DoD) released in 2019 a report that reveals that “within the active component, the suicide rate was 24.8 per 100,000 personnel. In the service reserves, the suicide rate for 2018 WAS 22.9 suicides per 100,000, and in the National Guard, the 2018 suicide rate was 30.6 per 100,000”.
“These numbers are alarming, and I know so many veterans and service members are struggling with the events in Afghanistan today. The mental health of our soldiers must be a priority. Although there are services available for servicemembers to receive mental healthcare, many do not request it because of the stigma that exists about mental health. Approximately 72% of those who died by suicide while serving on active duty did not access mental health resources in the month leading up to their death. The government must be more proactive in identifying the signs and encouraging service members to receive treatment. We cannot encourage people to come forward if their disease is stigmatized, so we must create an environment where talking about mental health is normalized. Our bill will help encourage the Department of Defense to take a hard look at what strategies are effective. I urge my colleagues in both chambers to pass this bill that could save the lives of our men and women in the Armed Forces who make innumerable sacrifices in the service of the Nation,” said González Colón.
HR 5061, Mental Health Stigma in the Military Act of 2021 directs the United States Secretary of Defense to carry out a pilot program to survey access to mental health care under the military health system. The pilot program should begin no later than October 1, 2021, and terminate on July 1, 2022.
“As the Co-Chair of both the Military Mental Health Task Force and the National Guard and Reserve Caucus, I have long advocated that Congress needs to do everything in its power to ensure our service members receive the mental health care and support they need. It is beyond heartbreaking that more veterans have died by suicide than combat in recent years. We must do everything in our power to stem the tide of this national tragedy, and a major step towards that is ending the stigma around mental health and encouraging service members to get help when they need it. This legislation will help to identify best practices across the Department of Defense and ensure they are deployed across the entire force – a step that is long overdue,” said Representative Ryan.
“The Mental Health Stigma in the Military Act of 2021 is being introduced during a critical time in our nation. Events unfolding in Afghanistan have only served to heighten the need to more effectively communicate with our servicemen and women about suicide prevention. We must work with our veterans and current military to reduce the social barriers associated with seeking assistance for mental health concerns and establish best practices for suicide prevention”, said Bice.
The Armed Forces periodically conduct internal surveys that help assess the work climate, the morale of the soldiers and their commanders. These surveys are known as Command Climate Surveys. The bill looks to update those surveys to include questions on access to mental health care by servicemembers.
By identifying high-performing commands, the bill will aid the DoD’s mission to measure suicide prevention effectiveness. Ultimately, the bill is intended to increase oversight of DoD as it continues to improve its suicide prevention efforts while identifying best practices that could be used by the civilian population.
“As a Navy veteran and Co-Chair of the Military Mental Health Task Force, I am proud to introduce the bipartisan Mental Health Stigma in the Military Act of 2021, which will improve access to mental health care for our nation’s warfighters by ending stigma in the command environment and identifying hurdles to accessing life-saving care,” said Reschenthaler. “By studying the effectiveness of the Department of Defense’s suicide prevention efforts, this bill will identify which practices save the most lives, improving access to mental health care resources and ensuring our nation’s servicemembers receive the help they need. I look forward to working with Reps. Jennifer González-Colón, Stephanie Bice, and Tim Ryan to get this commonsense bill signed into law.”