President Barack Obama has signed a new law aimed at preventing military suicides. Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana shepherded the bill through the Senate.
A study commissioned by the US Army found that the suicide rate doubled from 2004 to 2009 among soldiers who were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. The rate of 30 per 100,000 was noticeably higher than the civilian population of similar demographics, which stood steady at roughly 19 per 100,000. Among those who never deployed, the rate tripled during the same time period.
In 2012, the number of military suicides exceeded combat-related deaths.
The Sexton Act will require annual mental health assessments for all active-duty, Reserve and National Guard members. Current policy only screens servicemembers who are on deployment.
The law requires the Pentagon to issue a report that evaluates the military’s mental health practices with recommendations for improvements. The report, which will be given to Congress in a year, will work to identify programs that require fixes.
“A specific focus of the report will be identifying successful peer-to-peer programs that address the need for a more bottom-up approach to identifying warning signs and combating stigma in each of the Services, with the intention of future expansion,” Donnelly’s office says.
According to Donnelly’s office, the law will “maintain strong privacy protections for servicemembers.”
“We must ensure that seeking help remains a sign of strength by protecting the privacy of the servicemember coming forward. The privacy of servicemembers would be ensured by guaranteeing medical privacy protections for these mental health assessments,” Donnelly’s office says.
The Sexton Act is named after Jacob Sexton, who was a member of the Indiana National Guard. Sexton took his life in a Muncie movie theater at the age of 21 during a 15 day leave from Afghanistan.
“The day they passed the bill would have been Jacob’s 27th birthday,” says Jeff Sexton, Jacob’s father. “And I can’t think of a better birthday present for him or a better Christmas present for all the men and women and their families in the military that suffer every day from PTSD, head injuries, any kind of mental illness. And hopefully this may change the stigma and bring out the help that our men and women need.”
“Today, we honor the memory of a young man who was taken from us too soon. In remembering Jacob, we seek to prevent another servicemember’s family from experiencing the tragedy of suicide,” Donnelly said.