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DoD officials urge troops to seek mental health help without fear

One problem that may contribute to suicide numbers is a reticence to seek assistance from mental health providers due to fears that such help may damage careers, especially when it comes to security clearances. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Demetrio Montoya) One problem that may contribute to suicide numbers is a reticence to seek assistance from mental health providers due to fears that such help may damage careers, especially when it comes to security clearances. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Demetrio Montoya)

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In 2018, more than 320 active duty service members committed suicide. Among reserve component service members, 144 did the same. One lawmaker called it ''an epidemic.''

One problem that may contribute to suicide numbers is a reticence to seek assistance from mental health providers due to fears that such help may damage careers, especially when it comes to security clearances. But that fear is unfounded, one defense leader told lawmakers May 21.

"We absolutely need to get the word out that it's almost impossible to lose your security clearance from endorsing a mental health history on your SF-86 question 21,'' said Navy Capt. (Dr.) Mike Colston, the Defense Department's director of mental health policy and oversight. ''We really have data — [this has happened to] a couple dozen out of nearly 10 million security clearances,'' Colston said. ''So when we look at the process of 'Let's get down to the data,' are we going to kick you out for having a mental health condition? Probably not.''

Elizabeth P. Van Winkle, executive director of DoD's Office of Force Resiliency, told lawmakers during the joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on military personnel and the House Veterans Affairs Committee's health subcommittee that solving suicide is a shared challenge in both the military and civilian societies.

"Nationwide, suicide rates are alarming, and increasing,'' Van Winkle said. ''None of us has solved this issue, and no single case of suicide is identical to any other case. The scientific research surrounding prevention of suicides is both complex and ever-evolving. Suicide is the culmination of complex interactions between biological, social and psychological factors, operating at individual, community and societal levels. Our data also tells us it is often a sudden and impulsive act.''

One effort already underway to help take better care of service members, Van Winkle said, is codification of a framework to more efficiently transition outgoing personnel from active duty to the Department of Veterans Affairs ''to make sure service members leave the military with an understanding of, and easy access to, all of the benefits and resources that they require.''

Colston said as many as 10,000 behavioral health professionals are now embedded in primary care clinics and line units across the Defense Department to assist service members in need.

"It really speaks to ... interaction with those line commanders,'' Colston said. ''That's vitally important, and really getting a pulse of the unit.''

Van Winkle said there's ample training for both junior and senior leaders to recognize indicators that might lead to suicide within the force, including relationship, financial and legal issues.

Suicide, she said, ''reverberates beyond the unit, beyond the commander and beyond the service.''

"It is a loss for our country. ... We truly must show as much commitment and dedication to the well-being of our service members as they have demonstrated on the day they stepped forward to volunteer and serve our country.''

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