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Jacob Sexton Act: What does it mean for Indiana’s vets and military families?

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Dr. Suzanne Coyle is executive director of the Christian Theological Seminary Counseling Center (CTS) and director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program. She is also president-elect of the Indiana Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.

Coyle recently addressed a press conference organized by U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., in support of the Jacob Sexton Act.

Named for Jacob Sexton, an Indiana National Guard reservist who tragically took his life while on leave from Afghanistan in 2009, the bill has been incorporated into the Defense Spending Bill and will be voted on by the Senate later this year.

Coyle addresses the legislation and what it means to Indiana veterans and military families.

How will the Jacob Sexton Act serve Indiana veterans and military families?

Dr. Coyle: The legislation focuses on three main areas. It will require annual mental health assessments for all service members including Active, Reserve and National Guard. Presently, mental health screenings are most consistently administered to those troops actively deployed.

The Jacob Sexton Act will establish a working group between the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services that focuses on assuring that Reserve and National Guard troops are aware of the mental health benefits they may access. Reserve and National Guard troops typically rely on civilian insurance that often does not include mental health services.

Finally, the insurance would require an interagency report to evaluate existing mental health services available to military members and make recommendations for improvement.

What statistics point to a need for legislation such as the Jacob Sexton Act?

For two years, our nation has lost more men and women through suicide than in combat. In 2013, 470 troops committed suicide compared to 118 lost to combat. In 2012, 520 troops were lost to suicide compared to 295 in combat. This year, military leaders are reporting a spike in suicides.

While there is no research that authoritatively confirms the reason for the spike, a hunch is that people feel lost when returning from combat. The return from combat inevitably causes people to look at their actions and compare them in context with their moral values.

Why is the present moment such an opportune time for this legislation to be considered?

As troops are being called back from Afghanistan, they are returning to an environment that is not the same as what they left, and it can be really hard for troops and their families to adjust. This is particularly true for those troops who have re-upped for multiple deployments.

When military members serve, the dynamics of the family adjust as members take on new roles and these roles become established. When the military member returns home, it can be very challenging for all members of the family to readjust.

What are some other mental health concerns for veterans and military families?

Besides suicide and post traumatic stress disorder, clinical depression is a concern and can present huge problems within marriages. The CTS Licensed Marriage Family Therapy program has worked with the VA chaplain’s program to address the challenges that arise when a military spouse returns home.

The Warrior to Soul Mate program is a collaboration between CTS and the VA that will begin this fall. It is based on a program that was undertaken a few years ago, pairing CTS Counseling Center interns with military couples.

The impact on family members often depends on how impaired a returning vet may be. In some cases, the role of a spouse may move from being a partner to being a caregiver. We can look at studies that have been conducted on elderly caregivers to make some inferences about the strain of care giving.

How is the mental health environment different today than it was for troops returning from other earlier conflicts?

In some ways, the situation today is better and in other ways, it is worse. On the plus side, there has never been more therapy available to serve the population and people talk much more freely about mental health today than they did following World War II.

However, that therapy is available for those who can pay for the services. As we’ve seen in the headlines, there are long wait lists at the VA for health services. As they say, war changes everything.

You can learn more about services available at the Christian Theological Counseling Center by visiting CTS.edu.

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