A bill that could help curb suicide rates in the military is making its way to the U.S. Senate, thanks in part to the work of a pair of Pennsylvania’s legislators.
The Mental Evaluation Parity for Service Members Act has been championed by both Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township. The act would require a thorough mental screening of recruits joining the military.
Thompson, who thanked Toomey for leading the bill in the Senate Tuesday during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Military Museum, said the inspiration for the act came from contact with his constituents.
“Back in 2009, I had a rather difficult phone call from an Army specialist whose unit had come back from Iraq,” he said. “He shared with me about all his buddies ... that came back who had committed suicide, both on post and back in the home communities they were discharged.”
The soldier was Thompson’s son.
That conversation started a process and talks with the Pentagon on how to better serve those who serve their country, he said. This led to the the expansion of telemedicine and additional care after separation from active duty.
Telemedicine is the “use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve a patient’s clinical health status,” according to the American Telemedicine Association.
Under traditional assistance, when a service member leaves active duty, he or she is given six months of medical assistance. According to Thompson, the first signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder typically appear eight to nine months after discharge.
“That gap was costing lives,” he said. Now discharged service members get an additional six months of assistance through telemedicine to ensure they make a healthy and successful transition to civilian life. If they show signs of PTSD, the telemedicine follows them indefinitely, he said.
Studies show that those who attempt or commit suicide in the military had attempted it before joining, Thompson said. In many cases, they used the military as an escape for what had been driving them to suicide in the first place.
“The MEPS Act is very simple,” he said. “When you join the military, or when you switch from active duty to reserve or guard, you get a tremendous physical exam. But there’s no real comprehensive mental health exam. MEPS would change that.”
Veteran suicide rates have been dropping dramatically, he said. Although he couldn’t say new legislation was the cause, it is definitely part of the solution, he said.
“This MEPS Act would save lives,” Thompson said.
Neither Thompson nor Toomey indicated at what point in the recruitment process the exam would take place or what the next step would be if mental illness was found. The legislation would leave those decisions up to the Department of Defense.
“I believe it’s probably better for the legislation not to specify all the variations that might be discovered and what should be done about each of them,” Toomey said.
Prior to the news conference, the pair met with several heads of veterans organizations and distinguished veterans of multiple eras.
It was “very helpful to have a well-informed background as we go to Washington to try to make sure we’re doing right by the men and women who have put on the uniform of this country,” Toomey said.
He said one of the priorities was to help returning veterans find productive work.
“I was shocked and dismayed that the veteran unemployment rate among young men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is considerably higher than the public in general,” he said.
Toomey said he has been working on a series of bills and “nonlegislative efforts” to help this transition.
He saluted Thompson’s leadership on a variety of veterans’ issues and said he was pleased to co-sponsor the Senate companion legislation of the MEPS Act.
At this time, MEPS has passed the House of Representatives and will be going before the Senate soon, Thompson said.
“It will be the next tremendous service to those who serve,” he said.