Congress considers mandating mental health checkups


By Debbie Gregory.

Members of Congress are worried that the military is not doing enough to track and provide treatment for the mental health of American troops. A new bill aims to address the alarming rates of military suicides and the stigma associated with mental health among troops.

Two pieces of legislation, the Military Suicide Reduction Act and the Military Mental Health Empowerment Act aim to make sure deployed service members have access to mental health services, understand how their health information will be kept private, and finally,  how or if their mental health records can be accessed by military commanders.

The bills mandate troops receive mental health checkups once every six months while they are deployed in combat zones. Members of Congress hope that mandating regular screenings during the time when injuries and trauma are most likely to occur, will allow doctors to detect symptoms early and begin treatment. Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., originally sponsored the bill.

These screenings would be in addition to ones already in place pre- and post-deployment, required 120 days before deployment and three times after deployment: between 90 to 180 days, 181 days and 18 months, and 18 and 30 months.

“We are quick to diagnose and treat service members who are injured in combat, with medics rushing to those who are struck by enemy IEDs or gunfire,” Carson said. “But when it comes to the mental health challenges placed on our service members, we abandon them through months of deployment to deal with post traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts.”

In 2012, 349 service members committed suicide, surpassing, for the first time, the number of service members killed in combat in Afghanistan. The number also represented a 15 percent increase over the number of service member suicides from the previous year.

“Seeking help shouldn’t be something our service members have to second guess,” Carson said. “They shouldn’t have to fear drawing unwanted attention to themselves or derailing their careers. The invisible wounds of war are costing us gravely, but it is within our power right now to change that and start saving lives.”

The bill has been assigned to congressional committee which will consider it before possibly sending it to the House or Senate as a whole in the coming weeks.