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Military mental health services must be easier to get, service officials say

March 9, 2016 (Photo Credit: Susan Walsh/AP)

 

Better mental health care for service members and their families, tougher sexual assault policies and an improved retirement plan are key if the military is to retain troops, service personnel officials told lawmakers Tuesday.

Speaking to the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, service officials said that rising suicide rates and mental health problems need to be addressed through better care options.

“People don’t commit suicide,” said Lt. Gen. James McConville, Army deputy chief of staff for personnel. “They die of suicide. Just like people don’t commit heart disease. They die of heart disease.”

Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. William Moran said young men in the military are most vulnerable to mental health problems. Marine Lt. Gen. Mark Brilakis said  the best way to combat mental health troubles “in a hyperpressurized environment” is to provide counseling and other services early.

 

Depression is even higher among military spouses, said Kathy Roth-Duquet, chief executive officer of Blue Star Families. The depression rate for military spouses is 12 percent and unemployment is around 25 percent, according to Blue Star Families’ annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey. Roth-Duquet said the government should prioritize military spouse education, employment and child care services.

The military health system is inadequate and too expensive, particularly for veterans, said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. She asked the lawmakers to reject budget proposals “that threaten military family financial well-being as a way to save money for the government.”

“If I could wave a wand and fix anything, I’d make the military health system more accessible to military families,” she said.

Scott Bousum, legislative director for the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, noted a survey he conducted of 301 military personnel, in which nearly 70 percent of respondents said they cannot easily get treatment at military treatment facilities.

“My goal is to make the program sustainable in terms of budget but also to make it more efficient and not repackage the system and not charge you more,” said subcommittee Chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “That’s exactly where we’re heading and we’re not going to do that. We’re going to change the system.”

Financial insecurity is one of the contributing factors in the rise of mental health issues, the officers testified.

They said a more stable retirement program would create greater satisfaction with the military lifestyle.

“A lot of our young soldiers live paycheck to paycheck,” McConville said.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., emphasized improving sexual assault prosecution processes and decreasing retaliation rates on alleged sexual assault victims.

Joseph E. Davis, public affairs director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, noted that the Veterans Affairs Department reported in October 2014 that 25 percent of female veterans and 1 percent of male veterans said they experienced sexual trauma in the military.

“Our government’s most important responsibility is to provide for the security and integrity of our nation,” Davis said. “In very close second is taking care of those who protect us."

 

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