**Watch Senator Gillibrand’s opening remarks HERE**
Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, today led a subcommittee hearing to examine the issue of service member, family, and veteran suicides, and strategies to prevent these tragedies.
Gillibrand first called for this hearing immediately following a U.S. Department of Defense report showing that service member suicide rates spiked in 2018 after rising steadily for years. According to the DoD report, 541 service members died by suicide in 2018, and suicide rates had been increasing every year for the past five years before this year’s alarming spike. The increase in suicides is especially prevalent among younger service members and veterans.
Below are Senator Gillibrand’s opening remarks as delivered:
Thank you Chairman Tillis for holding this important hearing. Suicide in the military is a serious and growing problem. Not enough is being done to address the factors that contribute to this tragedy.
And to all of our witnesses, welcome and thank you for sharing your expertise with us today. Your insight of the prevalence and contributing factors of these suicides is crucial to helping our committee support our service members. And I appreciate, Mr. Chairman, you inviting an expert from the Veterans Administration, as it’s critical for us to understand the connections and distinctions between military and veteran suicides to be able to address both.
According to the 2019 Department of Defense Annual Suicide Report, the rate of suicide experienced by our service members has steadily increased over the last six years, spiking in 2018 by over six percent from 2013. There has been a narrative for a long time that military suicide is due primarily to PTSD and combat missions, and we must take the toll of combat on military members very seriously. But the report clearly demonstrates that combat missions are not directly correlative to the service members who die by suicide.
Suicide is complex and individual – there are a multitude of factors that lead to mental health challenges and can, in turn, lead to the devastation of suicide.
Military service is very difficult – our service members make sacrifices that are hard for some of us to even fathom. When Americans enter into military service, they lose control of where and how often they must relocate, the kind of housing they will live in, which schools their children will attend. It’s often impossible to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and frequently our service members are expected to sacrifice the needs of their families to accomplish a mission. Our gratitude for their sacrifices isn’t enough, we must also recognize the unique burdens that they face and that those burdens can lead to persistent mental health challenges, like chronic anxiety and depression. And too often those mental health challenges can contribute to suicidal ideations.
Of course some of these burdens are integral to the way military functions and to ensuring that our service members learn critical skills and are prepared to serve in a war zone. But it’s incumbent upon the leaders in this committee to determine when such factors are problematic enough that a greater system of support must be provided. Military and civilian leaders also must determine when factors are most disruptive than is necessary to accomplish the mission, so that they can develop more appropriate strategies for today’s military.
The military and the Department of Defense spend more and more each year on suicide prevention, but the results are not nearly good enough. I’d like to challenge our civilian and military leaders to think about military suicide in a more holistic way, understanding the factors that contribute to mental health challenges and to suicide. If the military is able to understand how the day-to-day stressors of serving can impact service members, they can work to minimize those stressors based on mission requirements and create the systems of support service members need to be successful.
This also means taking a real look at the existing systems of support.
Currently, the Department of Defense has a policy that requires mental health professionals to report many cases of mental health concerns of service members to a commander. This policy leads to mistrust and acts as a barrier to treatment because service members fear the repercussions to their career if they come forward with their mental health challenges. Of course, DOD must have policies to keep their service members and colleagues safe, but their standards for reporting mental health challenges are vague and go much further than the standards for civilian mental health professionals or even military chaplains. This policy is more likely to force service members to suffer in silence and does nothing to help commanders maintain good order and discipline.
I urge the Department of Defense to review their reporting rules for mental health professionals to ensure that they are allowing for maximum confidentiality for our service members while also protecting them from those around them. If we can eliminate the barriers that stand between our service members and access to mental healthcare, I believe we can begin to make progress toward addressing our military suicide rate.
Mr. Chairman, I am looking forward to hearing from all of our witnesses and I am committed to working with you, our colleagues on the Committee, the military, the Department of Defense to further support our service members and their wellbeing.