After spike in suicides, US senators from Alaska sponsor legislation to improve military mental health

WASHINGTON – The United States of Alaska Senators introduced legislation to improve quality of life and expand mental health resources for military personnel amid a rise in the number of U.S. Army soldiers in Alaska dying by suicide.

The Don Young Arctic Warrior Act would increase pay by $300 a month for service members performing cold weather operations, among other benefits. The law also aims to train and retain more behavioral health care providers to work with the military by authorizing annual bonuses of up to $50,000 and expanding a graduate program in counseling and social work at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

Alaska Republican Sense. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan sponsored the act after an uptick in Army Alaska suicides in 2021. Last year, at least 11 service members died by suicide at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks.

A 2019 Army study identified risk factors for suicide in Alaska, including “isolation, stigma, limited resources, poor coping skills, alcohol use, and poor quality of life. “, according to a USA Today survey. More than a quarter of soldiers surveyed said their financial situation was worse after moving to Alaska and 10.8% had suicidal thoughts.

[Earlier coverage: An alarming number of active-duty soldiers in Alaska died by suicide last year]

In April, Sullivan and U.S. Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of San Francisco and chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, attended listening sessions at JBER and Fort Wainwright. Lawmakers heard from service members, their families and behavioral health care providers.

“Our trip made it clear that Congress needs to act both to address stressors unique to Alaska and to improve access to behavioral health services across the Army,” Speier said. in a press release.

In fiscal year 2020, the Army invested $214.5 million in infrastructure projects aimed at improving the quality of life for service members. The law aims to address long-term issues like a shortage of behavioral health care providers, but would also help pay for short-term quality-of-life improvements like a car-sharing pilot plan, a free return flight from Alaska during a three-year tour. and $125 per month internet allowance.

The Congressional Budget Office has yet to produce a cost estimate for the law.

Murkowski called the act a “significant investment in the military” in a Thursday phone interview and said it would alleviate some financial pressures on service members new to Alaska who may not be expecting the high cost of living. .

“We know that financial pressure is linked to family stress. It’s a major risk factor for suicide,” Murkowski said.

Sullivan, who is a Marine Corps reservist and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also spoke out on improving mental health in the military. He told Alaska lawmakers in April that when he was a Navy officer, a service member under his command committed suicide.

“As a Marine, I have witnessed firsthand the training and tenacity required of our service members in Alaska,” Sullivan said in a statement. “Our legislation is intended to provide greater access to resources and support Alaska military members and their families they deserve in order to thrive in our unique environment.”

Murkowski and Sullivan introduced the legislation in the Senate on June 9, in honor of the birthday of the late U.S. Representative Don Young. Speier sponsored complementary legislation in the House of Representatives.

Sullivan also introduced the legislation as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023, the annual law that authorizes military funding.

The Arctic Warrior Act has some leads to follow. Several key provisions have been advanced from the Senate Armed Services Committee’s NDAA markup. If the provisions remain part of the NDAA, they could be enacted as early as September. Lawmakers are also considering the law in its full form both in the House and in the Senate.

“When you see a doubling of the suicide rate in Alaska over the last year, if we’re not doing everything we can to try to address that, then shame on us,” Murkowski said.

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