Calling military suicide rates unacceptable, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Sunday called on the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to make it easier for active-duty members and veterans to access mental health services.
During a news conference at her Manhattan offices, Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) also called on the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments to provide greater assistance to vets as they transition from military service to civilian life.
“This is a national crisis and we are simply not doing enough to stop it,” said Gillibrand, who put her concerns about veterans and mental health in a letter she sent to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
More than 45,000 veterans and active-duty service members have died by suicide in the past six years, Gillibrand said. The numbers spiked to a five-year high in 2018, she said.
“The numbers are going in the wrong direction,” Lindsay Rodman of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said at Gillibrand’s news conference. “We need to be doing more to address the needs of veterans in transition."
Gillibrand said she will ask the military to review rules requiring service members to report visits to mental health professionals to their commanding officers. She said the rules are unnecessarily vague and many active-duty sailors and soldiers don’t seek mental health help because they believe it will hinder their careers.
Gillibrand also called on the VA and the Defense Department to build a comprehensive transition program — including internships, reintegration programs and on-the-job training — that helps veterans make the leap from active-duty service to civilian life.
Gillibrand said veterans who have left the service in the past year are 2.5 times more likely to die by suicide than their active-duty counterparts.
Elizabeth R. OuYang, former president of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans and an advocate for Pvt. Danny Chen, said it was important for the military to eliminate the stigma of mental illness She said Chen, a New York resident who killed himself in Afghanistan in 2011 after enduring weeks of racist hazing and bullying from colleagues, may still be alive if he had somebody to talk to.
“Our soldiers who risk their lives for all Americans deserve access to mental health care without fear of reprisal or stigma,” OuYang said.