After 3 Years of Delays, Army Has Again Paused Rewriting Suicide Prevention Policies

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June 1, 2023
U.S. Army Col. Mitchell Wisniewski III, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (N.J.) deputy commander and Army Support Activity commander, signs the Suicide Prevention month declaration inside the dining hall of Tommy B’s lounge on the base.

Despite a website with vague guidance, PowerPoint presentations and at least five separate policies referencing behavioral health, the Army offers relatively few clear resources for how units are supposed to respond to soldiers who are at risk of suicide.

The service has been promising to rewrite its suicide prevention policy for three years, but the effort has been repeatedly delayed. The most recent holdup is due to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s push for uniform prevention policies across the services, as recommended by an independent commission that finished work in February.

The need for clear guidance has been highlighted by years of persistently high suicide rates and recent individual deaths. Military.com reported on the April suicide death of Spc. Austin Valley, who his parents said was largely left on his own at Fort Riley, Kansas, without needed medical care following an earlier attempt overseas.

For now, the forthcoming Pentagon policies recommended by its independent commission, which could affect all of the services, have stalled the Army’s own internal moves on suicide prevention.

“The Army continues to focus on taking care of our people and addressing the complex causes of suicide and other harmful behaviors. To do so, the Army is working with the Office of the Secretary of Defense to address recommendations that came out [from the commission],” Bryce Dubee, a service spokesperson, told Military.com in a statement..

The service said it is necessary to wait on the larger Pentagon policy to make sure its own policies are well nested going forward.

“The Army is also refining its draft Suicide Prevention Regulation to both support our commanders and soldiers in the field,” Dubee said.

Right now, there is no clear Army-wide guidance for units on how to respond to a soldier who has suicidal ideation or has made an attempt. The response strategies that do exist often lack specifics and are buried in numerous training programs.

In March 2022, Austin created an advisory commission to investigate military suicide and potential ways to combat it, as such deaths increased 44% between 2015 and 2020, outpacing the civilian population.

The panel found the center of the issues is easy access to guns, and recommended banning gun sales to troops 24 years old and younger, the most at-risk demographic in the service, and implementing a four-day waiting period for any other service member buying guns or ammo.

However, those restrictions would be political lightning rods — and would affect only sales on base. Most bases are surrounded by stores that sell weapons and ammo.

Meanwhile, on-base exchange stores in the U.S. sold 113,200 firearms in 2021, according to data provided to Military.com. Experts have found that suicide is often an impulsive decision and can depend on access to the means, such as firearms.

The issue of gun rights and access is thorny, and it is far from certain whether Austin, who has the final say on suicide regulations, will choose to make unprecedented restrictions on service members’ access to firearms, as the independent commission recommended.

A Pentagon working group is scheduled to give Austin an implementation plan for new suicide policies this week.

The Army first mentioned plans to rewrite its suicide prevention regulations in a 2020 statement to CBS News. Subsequent Army press releases kept shifting the planned timeline further into the future.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Gen. James McConville, the service’s top officer, most recently mentioned the effort this month in a joint statement to Congress in which they indicated it could be complete by the end of June.

“The Army is leveraging a new public health approach to prevent and respond to suicide at the individual and community levels,” the pair said in a statement for a May 2 hearing. “We will publish a comprehensive suicide prevention regulation to define this new approach for the force by the end of [the third quarter of fiscal year] 2023.”

On Tuesday, Military.com reported on Valley’s death. He was an infantryman assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 70th Armor Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. He was found hanging from a rope in Poland and was swiftly sent back to Fort Riley.

But Valley was apparently never placed into inpatient care or provided with any significant supervision following the suicide attempt, according to his parents and GPS and phone documents viewed by Military.com.

He died on April 11, 30 days after his attempt in Poland.

The lack of a unified Army response and poorly staffed mental health care facilities can leave units with few options to care for the rank and file.

In some cases, it can take weeks for a soldier to receive a behavioral health appointment. In Valley’s case, he scheduled an appointment off base and planned to pay out of pocket. But that appointment was set for after he died, according to his parents.

As the overhauled Army suicide policies are on hold, the service also aims to hire 1,300 behavioral health specialists by the end of 2027. But the service still struggles to compete with civilian-sector pay, and bases are often in rural areas that can make it difficult to recruit health professionals.

— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon

 

 

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