Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced new efforts to prevent suicides among military members but declined to limit ammunition and firearm purchases among young soldiers.
Instead, Austin ordered the director of the Defense Health Agency to improve access to health care services and suicide screening efforts.
“This Department’s most precious resource is our people… One loss to suicide is too many,” said Austin in his March 16 memo. “We must all – in every part of the Department – redouble our commitment to respond better to these tragedies and to prevent suicide.”
An independent committee had formally recommended the Department of Defense adopt new gun regulations to prevent suicides among its military members. On March 10, the panel said the department should raise the minimum purchasing age for service members from 18 to 25 and limit the possession and storage of privately owned weapons in barracks. The panel called for anyone residing in military housing to register all of their privately owned firearms.
Data reported by the panel indicates 67% of all active-duty military, 76% of National Guard and 74% of Reserve members’ suicides are carried out with a gun.
Additionally, the panel said recurring spikes in suicides could be addressed through more modern suicide prevention training and by addressing alcohol use among service members.
“Despite considerable investment in suicide prevention strategies, DOD (the Defense Department) has shown an increasing trend over a 15-year period in suicide rates,” said Jerry Reed, a consultant for the panel, per AP News.
For now, the gun-related recommendation has been sent to another panel for review.
“The committee made 127 recommendations and split them into high, moderate and low importance,” reported the department. “Overall, 23 of the recommendations were of high importance, 79 were listed as moderate and 25 were of low importance. Many of the recommendations align with existing DOD initiatives, like the DOD integrated violence prevention framework and efforts to prevent sexual assault and harassment.”
Austin has ordered the DHA director to “enhance access to mental health care,” “improve alignment or clinic scheduling,” and implement a model of care “wherein multiple behavioral health appointments are scheduled weekly at the outset of care.” Additionally, he ordered the DHA to “expedite hiring for behavioral health professionals” who are currently in short supply nationwide.
The secretary also ordered that “military medical treatment facilities screen for unhealthy alcohol use” and that they make available “evidence-based care for those seeking treatment or support for unhealthy drinking.”
The DHA was also directed to “expand opportunities to treat common mental health conditions in primary care.”
The Department of Defense has noted that, in addition to alcohol abuse, sleep deprivation and excessive energy drink use can increase an individual’s risk of suicide.
“While we recognize that suicide has no single cause, and that no single preventative action, treatment or cure will eliminate suicide altogether, we will exhaust every effort to promote the wellness, health and morale of our total force,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Brigader General Pat Ryder on March 16.