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Lawmakers Push for Review of How the Pentagon Grapples with Mental Health

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A bill introduced Friday in the House would create a task force to investigate military mental health and the Pentagon’s varied approaches to supporting and treating affected troops and their family members.

Under the bill, sponsored by Navy veteran Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., and Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., the task force would assess the extent of military mental health issues, examine all current programs and medical staffing, and make recommendations for improvements.

Nearly 15% of all active-duty service members had a known mental health condition in 2021, according to the most recent figures published by the Defense Health Agency.

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The prevalence of mental health conditions in U.S. service members more than doubled from 2005 to 2012, from 7.6% to 16% of all active-duty personnel, before falling slightly from 2013 to 2021, to an average 14.3% across nine years.

Military family members also have suffered in the past several years. A 2021 poll conducted for the advocacy group Blue Star Families by Syracuse University’s D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families found that one-quarter of military family respondents said they had a medical diagnosis for anxiety and 8% said they had post-traumatic stress disorder.

A 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that 29% of military spouses have had a mental illness.

Mental well-being has been on the decline in the U.S. in the past 50 years but it took a noticeable nose-dive in 2020 during the pandemic, the result of psychological stress, anxiety and depression related to the unknowns of the virus, social isolation and economic uncertainty.

However, mental health among the general U.S. population improved in 2021, according to an observational study published in the journal PLOS One in 2022.

DHA data show the opposite effect among active duty personnel, with a slight decline in overall mental health in 2020 and a rise in prevalence of mental health conditions in 2021.

Given the effects that mental health has on service members, their jobs and their families, finding solutions to address persistent issues is critical, said Reschenthaler and Kilmer, co-chairs of the Military Mental Health Task Force, part of the Congressional Mental Health Caucus.

“This bipartisan legislation is critical to developing solutions that alleviate the mental health crisis plaguing our service members and their families,” Reschenthaler said in a statement to Military.com on Tuesday.

The proposed task force would consist of up to 15 members, who would represent the services, family members, Defense Department medicine, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, military chaplains or pastoral care researchers, and subject matter experts.

They would assess the current state of mental health support, care and treatment in the services and through the Tricare health program and make recommendations on improving awareness, access to care, military transitions and tracking, as well as reducing disruptions to care, the impact of any proposed reductions of military medical personnel, and the stigma of seeking treatment.

Congress in 2021 required that the Defense Department create an independent commission to study suicides among service members, with an aim to review suicide prevention and behavioral health programs across the services.

While the proposed DoD Mental Health Task Force may have some similarities to the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee, it is broader in scope, examining all mental health programs, treatment and support rather than focusing primarily on suicide prevention efforts.

The task force, which could take up to a year to establish if the bill is signed into law, also would be able to assess the findings of the independent review committee as part of its investigation and along with the implementation of any recommendations and their effectiveness.

That committee made dozens of recommendations, from restricting the sale of weapons on military installations, imposing waiting periods on firearms purchases, centralizing and streamlining military suicide prevention policies and programs, and improving command climate, among other proposals.

According to a congressional staff member familiar with the proposed bill, H.R. 3011, the task force would focus on providing recommendations to Congress and the DoD on policies while the suicide prevention review committee focused on policy changes at the DoD to address suicide.

“Overall, this bill is additive rather than duplicative,” the staff member said.

Kilmer has ramped up oversight of military mental conditions and health services after several suicides on the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and concerns over access to health care spurred by planned reductions to medical billets at Defense Health Agency facilities in his district.

“In one of my meetings with a military leader, I asked him what kept him up at night. He didn’t say ‘budget cuts,’ or ‘terrorists.’ Rather, he told me, ‘The thing that keeps me up most is mental health. I’ve lost more soldiers to suicide than I have to enemy combatants.’ That’s got to change,” Kilmer said in a statement released Friday.

Kilmer and Reschenthaler will push for their bill to be included in the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. Bloomberg reported last week that the House Armed Services Committee is aiming to mark up the legislation in four weeks.

– Patricia Kime can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

Related: More Than One-Third of Tricare Patients Have Limited or No Access to a Psychiatrist, Study Finds

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