Mental health groups call on President Obama to recognize military personnel who commit suicide

The American Psychiatric Assn. on Tuesday urged President Obama to reverse a long-standing policy of withholding condolence letters to the families of U.S. servicemen and women who commit suicide.

“A reversal of this policy to allow condolence letters to family members will not only help to honor the contributions and lives of these servicemen and women, but will also send a message that discriminating against those with mental illness is not acceptable,” said Dr. Carol A. Bernstein, president of the nation’s leading organization of psychiatric specialists.

The APA’s appeal comes amid an escalating suicide crisis within the armed forces. A recent surge of suicides among U.S. military personnel has punctuated already record suicide rates over the last five years within the ranks of U.S. service members returning from  Iraq and Afghanistan. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, recently predicted that the mental health emergency among those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan is far from over: With the return home of thousands of U.S. troops after multiple deployments, “I think we are going to see significant increases in the challenges we have in terms of our families,” Mullen told reporters recently.

In an effort to persuade service members to seek help for emotional problems, the military has been struggling to remove the stigma that psychiatric care has long held within the ranks of the armed forces. In calling for the recognition at the highest level, the American Psychiatric Assn. appears to be pressing the military to do more to de-stigmatize those who seek help for mental illness.


Under current policy, military members who commit suicide receive full military honors as they are laid to rest. But unlike the families of service members who are killed in combat or who die in war zones, survivors of military suicides do not receive a condolence letter from the president.

Nowhere are suicide rates higher than among Army personnel. In 2009, the Army reported 160 suicides among its active-duty soldiers, a hike from the 2008 rate of 140. Once every 36 hours, a member of the armed forces commits suicide, according to the Department of Defense, and the numbers of suicides among active-duty personnel has reached record levels in every branch of the armed services.

Joining the APA in calling for a reversal of the policy are the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Mental Health America. Collectively, the groups are gathering signatures to send a petition to Obama, who said last November that he was considering a shift in policy.

-- Melissa Healy/ Los Angeles Times