Every day an active-duty member of our Armed Forces commits suicide.
To emphasize the silent, tragic epidemic that is sweeping across the U.S. military, consider this one statistic, which was brought to light in a recent TIME magazine article: “More U.S. military personnel have died by suicide since the war in Afghanistan began than have died fighting there.”
Let me rephrase that, just to make sure you understood the above statistic: Since the start of the Afghanistan war in 2001, there have been more soldier suicides than soldier combat deaths.
It’s not as though the Pentagon has been doing nothing on this issue. They have been working to address the epidemic of soldier suicides through research, by setting up hotlines, expanding outreach programs, and increasing access to mental health services. Yet, we are still seeing a suicide per day.
Clearly, these efforts aren’t hitting their mark. Suicide is an extremely complex problem and we do not have all the answers, but one thing we do know is that the Pentagon must do better.
On July 19, with bipartisan support, I helped to increase the Pentagon’s suicide prevention budget by $10 million in the defense annual budget that passed the U.S. House. It is my hope that in moving forward, the Pentagon will consider two important changes when spending this part of their budget to ensure that the most effective suicide prevention strategies are carried out.
First, address stigma. We must ensure that like all medical care, seeking and receiving psychological health care never jeopardizes a soldier’s security clearance or her or his prospects for promotion. There cannot be, and cannot be perceived by service members to be, a double standard around seeking medical care for the visible versus invisible wounds of war.
Second, break the problem down. If getting soldiers to recognize their mental health needs and seek treatment represents the Grand Challenge, consider tackling the smaller challenges. A focus on recognizing emotional pain, grief, stress, sleeplessness, anxiety, etc. and treatment through anonymous portals, out of system care, or peer to peer counseling can provide the most immediately accessible tools and techniques that soldiers need now. And, recent research from the Pentagon shows that this approach to suicide prevention is more effective.
The military, and perhaps the Nation at large, should think hard about how we perceive mental health care as a society. It will be difficult to see meaningful gains in suicide prevention without seeing a reduction in the stigma associated with seeking treatment.
At the end of the day, the Pentagon’s approach has to be targeted and effective. The time is now to reverse the heartbreaking trend of soldiers taking their own lives every day.
Congressman Jim McDermott is a medical doctor who specialized in psychiatry and treated returning sailors and marines during the Vietnam War. He represents Washington State’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.