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Bills call for recruits to be tested for mental health

Apr. 25, 2014 - 09:42AM   |  
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Two congressional bills calling for mental health screening of all military recruits are drawing more attention following the April 2 shootings at Fort Hood, Texas.

The bipartisan Medical Evaluation Parity for Service Members bill, HR 4305, was introduced in March before Army Spc. Ivan Lopez wounded 16 soldiers, killed three others and then turned his gun on himself.

Afterward, a companion bill, S 2231, was drafted in the Senate, and military and veterans service organizations began weighing in.

“The MEPS Act is long overdue in addressing the need to establish a workable baseline to identify the signature mental health injuries of the current wars,” said Army Col. Peter Duffy, legislative director for the National Guard Association of the United States.

The bill would require the services to screen for behavioral health problems just as they conduct medical evaluations and physical exams. The intent would be to provide an assessment that could alert the services to potential issues and provide a baseline of comparison for later assessments.

“Too many of our men and women in uniform still suffer from the effects of post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and behavioral health conditions. While the DoD has made great strides in the way it treats these invisible wounds, the steady persistence of this problem demonstrates the need for more action,” said bill co-sponsor Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

While people with a history of mental or behavioral health conditions are not allowed to join the military, exceptions are made in instances when potential recruits have been symptom-free for a certain time or can perform their duties without medical management.

The Army has released no information on Lopez’s mental state before he entered active duty. Family members and friends described him as a passionate musician and a “good person” who displayed no violent tendencies.

Army officials said he was under a psychiatrist’s care at the time of the shooting and was medicated for depression and anxiety, although he had not been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. They also said investigators do not believe Lopez’s mental health issues were the “direct precipitating factor” in the deadly rampage.

An extensive Army study on soldier mental health and resilience found that one in five soldiers enters the service with a psychiatric disorder and nearly half who tried suicide first attempted it before enlisting.

“Despite increased awareness and expanded efforts to address behavioral health issues in the military, our service branches still face challenges when it comes to early detection and prevention,” co-sponsor Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said.

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