|By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
| WASHINGTON, June 2, 2009 – With increasing pressure on the defense budget, the top military officer called increased mental health care services for returning combat troops a priority that can’t be allowed to fall by the wayside. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told a forum of congressional staffers today the military has made big strides in providing more and better mental health support for servicemembers suffering from post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries and other mental health challenges.“But this continues to be an enormously challenging issue,” he said, noting the stigma too many still attach to seeking care. Mullen cited the “exceptionally high” military suicide rate as a sobering gauge of challenges facing the force. Early statistics indicate the Army’s suicide rate continues to rise, topping what Mullen conceded in 2008 was a “record year.”
“But it’s not just the Army,” he told the group. “The suicide rate is up in every single service.” Mullen acknowledged there’s no hard-and-fast analytical data that cites a direct correlation between combat deployments, combat stress and suicide rates. “But I just can’t believe that it is not very much related,” he said.
Mullen called suicide prevention a leadership issue and said it’s up to leaders, buddies and families to recognize the first signs of problems in their fellow soldiers or loved ones and steer them to get help. “The leadership in all the services is addressing this issue very strongly,” he said. “When leaders apply themselves, we can make a big difference.”
Pointing to new and recently enhanced mental health services, Mullen said the emphasis now is to get more people who need help to seek it without fear of being stigmatized. One way to do that, he said, might be to institute mandatory baseline screening. “I think we need to get to a point where everyone is screened,” he said. “Baselines can go a long way toward removing the stigma.” The military has hired more mental health professionals to provide this care, but Mullen said it’s still short of what it needs.