A freshman congressman from New York explained to attendees at a program on mental health in the military how he joined hands with another freshman from Florida to introduce legislation providing for follow-up counseling and other services to help reduce the number of suicides in the armed forces.
Rep. Michael McMahon, D-N.Y., said Rep. Thomas Rooney, R-Fla., approached him about co-sponsoring bills to assist in that effort. “There are some issues that transcend partisanship. [We] were very concerned about the high rate of suicide in the military.”
Speaking March 11 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, he said, “The statistics are just sobering.”
The Department of Defense reported 349 suicides in 2009. McMahon said that suicide statistics kept by the Department of Veterans Affairs show an increase over the last four years of 28 percent.
“Stigma is always a problem,” which is one reason one of the bills calls for mandatory screening of all service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. He said that congressional appropriators with the strong backing of Defense Secretary Robert Gates set aside $500 million to begin the screening and provide the support for follow-on treatment.
The problem in the appropriation bill’s language was not requiring the screening and support if DoD said it did not have enough mental health professionals for the program at the start. The department is short several hundred professionals in the behavioral science fields.
He suggested that the Defense Department partner with civilian organizations such as Give an Hour (featured in the January 2010 AUSA NEWS) to fill the gap.
“Suicide may not always be preventable [but] intervention is a way to do it, with counseling.”
McMahon said that he would be taking back to Capitol Hill ideas on how to broaden the screening and counseling programs to service members’ families, to government employees and contractors who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Drawing on his constituent’s experiences following the terrorist attacks upon the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, he said, “We’re still fighting to get mental health services for those involved,” but who were not necessarily first responders. “It’s a parallel to what we have in the military.”
Clark Murdoch, senior adviser in the center’s International Security Program, said, “The cultural issue is much broader than in the military.”
Adding, “The society as a whole is far behind the military” in trying to address mental health issues.
In introducing the discussion, Lt. Gen. Theodore Stroup, vice president for education at the Association of the United States Army, said the 1.2 million men and women on active duty and serving in the reserve components “have gone over [to combat zones] in higher frequency” than any other generation serving the nation since it was founded.
The seriousness of these invisible wounds was recognized as early as the Battle of Antietam in September, 1862.
He said that in later wars they were called shell shock or battle fatigue.
Stroup called today’s service members “a national treasure” and said that the passage of McMahon’s and Rooney’s bills were “going to have a major impact on our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coast guardsmen.”
As to why he became involved, McMahon said, “I feel … that this is my duty.”