DoD takes on suicide with monumental independent committee

As the military wrestles with some of its highest suicide rates on record, the Defense Department is undertaking a landmark look into mental health, suicide prevention and response.

The Pentagon announced Tuesday the establishment of the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee (SPRIRC) – a commission that will use third-party experts to critique the military’s response to mental health.

The committee is based off last year’s independent review commission on sexual assault in the military, which gave DoD more than 80 recommendations to create a better environment to lower sex crimes. The Pentagon has since created a roadmap to implement those suggestions.

DoD says SPRIRC will review the military’s activities and actions to address suicide prevention and response. It will also look further into the actions underway regarding the sexual assault commission’s recommendations.

“It is imperative that we take care of all our teammates and continue to reinforce that mental health and suicide prevention remain a key priority,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrote in the memo establishing the committee. “One death by suicide is one too many. And suicide rates among our service members are still too high. So, clearly we have more work to do.”

Nine installations will act as the first bases for review including Ft. Campbell in Kentucky, Camp Humphreys in South Korea and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. Alaska has had some of the highest military suicide rates.

In the next two months, DoD will identify a timeline for installations visits and a charter for the commission. Work will start no later than May 14 and visits to bases begin by Aug. 1. The committee will send its report to Austin by Dec. 20 and to Congress by next February.

“Just in 2020 alone, we had a total of 580 service members die by suicide; that includes active, reserve, and National Guard,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday. “So clearly, obviously, we have more work to do. And it’s the secretary’s intention that this independent review committee will help us wrap our arms around this.”

Kirby said DoD will be looking for innovative solutions to prevent and respond to suicide.

Austin visited Ft. Wainwright in Alaska last summer, where he met with mental health experts.

“The secretary believes that one problem that we have to get after is the stigma of seeking help for mental health problems, which is still a problem in the military,” Kirby said. “There’s still a feeling by too many service members, that if I’m having problems, dealing and coping, I can’t seek help because it’ll be held against me on my next promotion board, or it may be held against me on my assignments, or maybe my commanding officer will think twice before giving me a new assignment inside the command.”

Kirby added that access to guns is another issue Austin is concerned about.

“One of the things that he wants to do is work with commanders on storage of the firearms in the home or on base and make sure we’ve got well in hand,” Kirby said.

The idea for the committee comes from the 2022 defense authorization act.

That law also incorporates a handful of other mental health provisions. Those include a pilot to provide direct assistance to schedule mental health appointments and confidential referral from commanders to mental health professionals for service members.

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