WASHINGTON, June 2, 2009 – With increasing pressure on the defense budget, the top military officer called increased mental health care services for returning combat troops a priority that can’t be allowed to fall by the wayside. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told a forum of congressional staffers today the military has made big strides in providing more and better mental health support for servicemembers suffering from post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries and other mental health challenges.

“But this continues to be an enormously challenging issue,” he said, noting the stigma too many still attach to seeking care.

Mullen cited the “exceptionally high” military suicide rate as a sobering gauge of challenges facing the force. Early statistics indicate the Army’s suicide rate continues to rise, topping what Mullen conceded in 2008 was a “record year.”

“But it’s not just the Army,” he told the group. “The suicide rate is up in every single service.”

Mullen acknowledged there’s no hard-and-fast analytical data that cites a direct correlation between combat deployments, combat stress and suicide rates. “But I just can’t believe that it is not very much related,” he said.

Mullen called suicide prevention a leadership issue and said it’s up to leaders, buddies and families to recognize the first signs of problems in their fellow soldiers or loved ones and steer them to get help.

“The leadership in all the services is addressing this issue very strongly,” he said. “When leaders apply themselves, we can make a big difference.”

Pointing to new and recently enhanced mental health services, Mullen said the emphasis now is to get more people who need help to seek it without fear of being stigmatized.

One way to do that, he said, might be to institute mandatory baseline screening. “I think we need to get to a point where everyone is screened,” he said. “Baselines can go a long way toward removing the stigma.”

The military has hired more mental health professionals to provide this care, but Mullen said it’s still short of what it needs.

“We have taken significant steps to improve those numbers,” he said. In light of a nationwide shortage of these professionals, he said, the military needs to be more creative in finding ways to attract them, possibly through tuition assistance programs or by tapping into volunteers willing to work pro bono.

“I am just not one who says that because we are short in America, we ought to be short in the military,” Mullen said. “If that is the case, then there is no way I can close that gap, and I just don’t accept that.

“We have to be more creative about how we incentivize individuals … to help us reach out to these young people who have mental health challenges and provide that type of service to them.”

As he emphasized the importance of mental health services, Mullen also described efforts aimed at reducing stress on the force by increasing “dwell time” at home between deployments.
Many troops currently have as little 12 months at home between 12-month deployments.

“I can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel over the next 18 to 24 months where we are going to move toward twice as long at home as when … deployed,” Mullen said.

When he refers to “home time,” Mullen said he means time troops spend at home with their families – not off at a military school or in the field training for their next deployment. “Home tempo means, ‘How many nights am I sleeping in my own bed?’” he said.

Mullen called these and other initiatives to reduce stress on the force and provide the mental health support services many of its members need an obligation that can’t be compromised.

“We have to stay on this issue,” he said. “We have to continue to look to support those … who we are asking to do so much, who have done so much, sacrificed so much, made such a difference, and figure out a way to make sure we are taking care of them.”

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