Today, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, chair of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, held a hearing on suicide in the armed forces and, subsequently, held a video press conference to discuss findings from the morning’s hearing and her Senate priorities to address the rising toll of suicide in the military. Last week, the Department of Defense released a new report showing that 518 service members died by suicide in 2021, and the suicide rate among active-duty personnel rose to its highest level ever recorded in 2020. As deaths by suicide continue to spike, Senator Gillibrand is calling on Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to address lapses in delivering timely access to mental health care for service members.
“The men and women of our armed forces pledge their lives to serve our country and we have an obligation to take care of them in return. Today, in my capacity as chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, I convened experts and military leaders to address the epidemic of suicide among our service members and learn more about the steps being taken to combat future tragedies,” said Senator Gillibrand. “I am alarmed by the spiking rates in suicide recently reported by the DoD and have called on Secretary Austin to address this issue head-on. I remain steadfastly committed to closing gaps in mental health coverage and the challenges far too many of our service members are facing.”
A study released last year by the Costs of War Project found that, since September 11th, suicides among active-duty personnel and veterans of post-9-11 conflicts have outpaced military operation deaths four to one. In 2019, 156 veterans in New York died by suicide — one nearly every other day — and veterans die by suicide in New York at a much higher rate than the overall state population. This tragic pattern continued when late last year, three 10th Mountain Division soldiers at Fort Drum lost their lives to suspected suicide within three days.
Senator Gillibrand has been a staunch advocate for increasing access to mental health services in order to combat the scourge of suicide in the military. Last year, Senator Gillibrand secured key provisions of the Brandon Act, named in Brandon Caserta’s honor, in the NDAA, which will allow service members to access confidential mental health evaluation referrals without fear of retaliation. She also fought to secure improved health care benefits and TRICARE coverage, including a pilot program that will ensure beneficiaries receive direct assistance identifying appropriate mental health providers within the direct care system or TRICARE network when referred for mental health care services. In 2019, Senator Gillibrand used her position as chair of the Personnel Subcommittee to raise the issue of suicide and access to mental health services in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, and again during a press conference in 2021. She has also previously called on the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense to improve the support veterans receive during their transition from military service to civilian life.
The full text of the letter is available here or below:
Dear Secretary Austin
For two decades, the Department of Defense (DoD) has struggled to address the mental health needs of our men and women in uniform throughout the Global War on Terror. Despite recognition of this epidemic, the number of those who have taken their own lives has increased. In 2021, 30,177 active duty personnel and veterans who served in the military after 9-11 died by suicide compared to the 7,057 service members killed in combat in those same 20 years. U.S. Army Alaska alone experienced 17 suicides in 2021—more suicide deaths than in the previous two years combined.
Many service members and their families across the DoD experience long waits to see mental health counselors and there is a lack of resources available to treat those in crisis. Delays in care are unacceptable for our young men and women that have pledged their lives to serve our country. While I agree with your decision to include Alaska in the DoD’s Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee (SPRIRC), service members experiencing mental health crises require timely assistance and should not have to wait for access to mental health resources. I ask that you immediately assess the access service members have to timely mental health care. I fear that these suicides could have been prevented if there were adequate resources to help those struggling.
I intend to require DoD have licensed behavioral health providers available to conduct yearly in person mental health exams and pre-separation exams for all service members. Too often the DoD has delegated this requirement to untrained personnel allowing those struggling with mental health issues to potentially slip through the cracks.
Service members contemplating suicide need urgent help and should never have to experience lengthy delays to see a mental health counselor. These situations are matters of life or death for those seeking help. As chair of the Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, today I held a hearing on mental health and suicide in the Armed Forces in order to determine what resources and actions are needed to prevent suicide and address mental health among our service members. I ask that you put forth all resources required to address this critical issue for our military personnel and their families.