WASHINGTON, DC - Today, Rep. Trent Kelly (R-MS), Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, made the following remarks, as prepared for delivery, on the Subcommittee's joint hearing with the Committee on Veterans Affairs titled “Military and Veteran Suicide: Understanding the Problem and Preparing for the Future."
"Thank you, Madam Chairwoman.
"I wish to welcome our witnesses to today’s hearing and I want to thank them for being here. The fact that we are holding a joint hearing with both the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs testifying together underscores the importance of suicide prevention and the need for a unified solution to this problem.
"We are at a crisis point. Last year’s suicide rate among active duty forces was the highest it has been since 2012, and ties for the highest on record since the services began tracking it. Meanwhile, approximately 20 veterans commit suicide each day. This is unacceptable, and we all have a responsibility to fix this issue. I am concerned that the high rate of suicide among service members and veterans will soon become a fact of life, and that we are beginning to accept it as a natural consequence of military service. We cannot let that happen. We must take decisive action to disrupt the status quo and to reverse this epidemic.
"When a service member takes his or her own life, it is a tragedy for both the surviving family and the unit. While suicide has an often irreparable effect on the service member’s family, it can also cause lasting effects on the unit. In addition to the emotional impact on fellow service members, we know that one suicide in a unit can sometimes lead to additional suicides or a “contagion” effect. That is why suicide must continue to be treated as not just a personal mental health issue, but as a readiness issue.
"I am interested to hear from today’s witnesses about the behavioral health treatment available for service members and veterans. Particularly, I am concerned that there continues to be a stigma associated with seeking behavioral health treatment. In fact, as the VA notes in their written statement, over half of those who die by suicide had no mental health diagnosis at the time of their deaths. I am interested to hear how the services mandate periodic behavioral health check-ups for all service members and whether those interventions are effective. Just like required yearly physicals and dental check-ups are not an option, should a substantive session with a behavioral health provider—not just an assessment by a medical provider—be required?
"I am also convinced that small unit leader involvement is critical to identifying behavioral health issues. The services must leverage the NCO leaders closest to the service members, at the team and squad level, to help identify self-destructive behaviors and get help for their service members. I would like to know what training is provided to these leaders to help them in identifying problems and getting assistance.
"I hope that today’s hearing will bring renewed attention to the problem of military suicide. While I am interested in the actions that the Defense Department and VA have done to prevent suicide, I am also focused on the practical things we can do today to reverse this disturbing trend. Thank you, and I yield back."