September 30, 2021

With The Rate Of Military Suicide Outpacing Military Operation Deaths Four To One, Senator Gillibrand Presses For Improved Access To Mental Health Care For Active-Duty Military And Veterans

DoD 2020 Annual Suicide Report Released Today: 580 Service Members Died by Suicide in 2020, An Increase From 498 Service Members in 2019 According to Recent Reporting, Since 9/11, Approximately 7,057 Service Members Have Died In Combat During Military Operations While A Staggering 30,177 Active Duty Personnel And Veterans Have Died By Suicide; As U.S. Soldiers Withdraw From the Longest War In United States History, Many At Home Will Bear The Physical And Mental Scars Of Warfighting in Afgha

Today, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, chair of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, held a video press conference to address the rising rate of suicide in the military—a crisis in New York State and across the country. A recent study conducted by the Cost of War Project shows that since 9/11, more than four times as many active-duty personnel and veterans have died by suicide when compared to the number of service members who have died in combat. Today, the Department of Defense released its annual report on suicide, showing that 580 service members died by suicide in 2020. This is an increase from 2019’s report of 498 service members.

Gillibrand’s push comes as three 10th Mountain Division soldiers at Fort Drum lost their lives to suspected suicide within 48 hours, two weeks ago. In response to these tragedies, Gillibrand sent a letter to the Department of Defense on Thursday asking for details on the Department’s actions to address marital stress and the mental health of service members and their families. She is also renewing her push to pass the Brandon Act, bipartisan legislation named in Brandon Castera’s honor, which would expand access to mental health care services for active-duty military personnel, including access to confidential mental health evaluation referrals without fear of retaliation.

“If significant interventions are not implemented, we will continue to see deeply concerning suicide rates among our active-duty service members and veterans,” said Senator Gillibrand. "Over the last ten years, the veteran suicide rate has doubled that of the civilian suicide rate. These aren't just numbers, these are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. And as the recent tragedies at Ft. Drum prove, no community is immune to this crisis. We owe it to these brave men and women to end the stigma on mental health and eliminate barriers that stand between our service members and veterans and access to mental health care.”

More than 45,000 veterans and active-duty service members have committed suicide over a six-year period from 2013-2019. According to the DoD’s reporting, suicide rates for active-duty service members and veterans continue to rise, and spiked to a five-year high in 2018. In 2017, 136 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. Additionally, between 2005 and 2017, the suicide rate more than doubled for New York veterans aged 18 to 34 years old.

Currently, the Department of Defense policy requires mental health professionals to report many cases of mental health concerns of service members to a commander. However, commanders are not required to provide opportunities for mental health treatment. This policy lacks accountability, can lead to mistrust, and serves as a barrier to treatment, as many service members fear repercussions to their career. The bipartisan Brandon Act would require the Department of Defense to establish a standard phrase that service members may use to initiate mandatory and immediate treatment and would ensure confidentiality for service members seeking treatment. This confidential request would be designed to function like the restricted reporting system for victims of military sexual assault, so that service members can receive mental health treatment in confidence.  

Gillibrand’s announcement also comes as U.S. soldiers withdraw from Afghanistan and the longest war in United States history. Many service members from the Fort Drum 10th Mountain Division deployed to Afghanistan to assist in the withdrawal. Many now bear the physical and mental scars of warfighting.

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. On Tuesday, during a hearing in front of the Senate Armed Service Committee, Gillibrand raised the issue of suicide and access to mental health services to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. They both emphasized the importance of destigmatizing the need for mental health support across the armed services. In 2019, Gillibrand led a Personnel Subcommittee hearing on the steep rise in military and veteran suicide and examined strategies to prevent these tragedies, including ensuring confidentiality for service members seeking treatment. In a letter to the Department of Defense, Gillibrand noted that consistent and sustained mental health care is vital to combating the crisis of military suicides, and service members must be able to trust mental health providers to keep confidentiality. Gillibrand also 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.

To read the full letter please click here.

For more on the Brandon Act, please click here.