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Career-long mental health assessments proposed

Apr. 30, 2013 - 11:05AM   |  
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An Indiana lawmaker wants to expand military suicide prevention programs to include an annual mental health assessment for active and reserve members, with reports from supervisors about any relationship or financial issues that might trigger stress or suicidal tendencies.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is calling his proposal the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, named for an Indiana National Guard specialist who took his own life in 2009 while on leave from a deployment to Afghanistan.

The bill, S 810, is the first piece of legislation introduced by the newly elected Donnelly.

Donnelly said he wants to build a mental health system that will help prevent suicide even after deployments.

The current mental health system relies “on a service member’s or veteran’s willingness to self-report suicidal thoughts and to seek out assistance,” he said. “The backup to this system is if family members, peers or co-workers identify changes in behavior and then recommend their loved one or friend seek assistance.”

This did not work for the 21-year-old Sexton, who shot himself in the head at a movie theater while sitting with friends and family. “His death came as a shock to his family and his friends, as well as his fellow Guard members,” said Donnelly. “We have lost far too many men and women such as Jacob.”

Under his proposal, referred to the armed services committee for consideration, an annual mental health assessment questionnaire would be added to the annual physical as part of a pilot program.

In addition to the questionnaire, Donnelly wants input from a service member’s immediate supervisor who “may be aware of relationships or financial problems but not be able to address them unless the service member speaks up.”

“Sometimes these problems affect performance,” Donnelly said. “The supervisor’s input would help identify potential triggers for stress and suicidal tendencies or problems in work performance.”

The questionnaire and the supervisor’s report would be reviewed by mental health professionals, he said. “If problems or risk factors are identified, service members would be referred to behavioral health specialists.”

The idea is to build a system “that monitors the member from induction to transition to veteran status,” and produce a record that a member could take with him after military service.

“It could help inform any future claims for veterans’ benefits,” Donnelly said.

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