Federal law requires the Defense Department to screen for suicide risk among service members who are preparing to transition to civilian life, as well as ensure they have consistent access to mental health care during that time. But that hasn’t been happening.
A Defense Department inspector general report released Friday found that troops are not consistently being screened for suicide risk as they transition out of active-duty, and there is no oversight mechanism to ensure it. The report also found not everyone is getting plugged into VA health services immediately after transition.
“As a result, the DoD may not have identified mental health issues and suicide risk in transitioning Service members, impairing the ability of the DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs to identify all current conditions, predict future health care needs, or provide benefits at discharge,” according to a Friday release. “Furthermore, the DoD may not arrange for continuing mental health care for the thousands of transitioning Service members with existing mental health conditions, jeopardizing their safety.”
The VA’s own office of suicide prevention contends that a service member leaving active-duty is at roughly a threefold suicide risk compared to any other point during their career.
The Defense Health Agency, together with the services, should have been conducting a mental health assessment as part of the overall Separation History and Physical Exam every transitioning troop undergoes.
“Additionally, the DoD and Military Services relied on expired policy to govern suicide risk screening and referral processes,” according to report.
Furthermore, there was no clear policy governing a “warm handoff” ― the concept of ensuring continuous access to services as one transitions from military health care to VA benefits ― against department policy.
The IG recommended that the Pentagon’s top health official establish protocols to close those gaps.
“At a minimum, the policies and procedures should designate an organization to have responsibility for the clinical implementation of the policy and designate an organization to have oversight responsibility for mental health assessment,” according to the report.
The report also recommends that DHA figure out why there are sometimes breaks in mental health care for transitioning troops, then ensure they are properly budgeted to fulfill that responsibility.
The defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness agreed with those recommendations, but did not name an oversight body for mental health screening. The IG considers the issue unresolved.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.