Anchorage Daily News: After spike in suicides, Alaska’s U.S. senators sponsor act aimed at improving military mental health

WASHINGTON — Alaska’s U.S. senators have introduced legislation aimed at improving quality of life and expanding mental health resources for military personnel amid a rise in U.S. Army Alaska soldiers dying by suicide.

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

Alaska Republican Sens. 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 investigation. Over a quarter of soldiers surveyed said they were worse off financially after moving to Alaska and 10.8% had suicidal thoughts.

In April, Sullivan and U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a San Francisco Democrat and chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, attended listening sessions at JBER and Fort Wainwright. The lawmakers heard from military personnel, their families and behavioral health providers.

“Our trip made clear that Congress must act both to address stressors unique to Alaska as well as to improve access to behavioral health services throughout the military,” Speier said in a statement.

In fiscal year 2020, the Army invested $214.5 million on infrastructure projects aimed at improving service members’ quality of life. The act aims to tackle long-term problems like a shortage of behavioral health providers, but also would help pay for short-term quality of life improvements like a pilot car-sharing plan, a free flight home from Alaska during a three-year tour and a $125 monthly internet allowance.

The Congressional Budget Office has not yet produced a cost estimate for the act.

Murkowski called the act an “important investment in the military” in a Thursday phone interview and said it would alleviate some financial pressures on service members new to Alaska who might not expect 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 Committee on Armed Services, has also spoken out about improving mental health in the military. He told Alaska lawmakers in April that when he served as a Marine officer, a service member under his command died by suicide.

“As a Marine, I have witnessed firsthand the training and toughness required of our military in Alaska,” Sullivan said in a statement. “Our legislation aims to provide better access to the resources and support Alaska’s service members and their families deserve in order to thrive in our unique environment.”

Murkowski and Sullivan introduced the act in the Senate on June 9, in honor of the late U.S. Rep. Don Young’s birthday. Speier sponsored companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

Sullivan also introduced the act as an amendment to the fiscal year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, the annual piece of legislation that authorizes military funding.

The Arctic Warrior Act has a few paths forward. Several key provisions advanced out of the Senate Armed Services Committee NDAA mark-up. If the provisions remain a part of the NDAA, they could be signed into law as early as September. Lawmakers are also considering the act in its full form in both the House and the Senate.

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

By:  Riley Rogerson
Source: Anchorage Daily News