Bill to help curb veterans' suicides might have opposite effect, critics say

A proposal in Congress intended to help reduce the suicide rate among U.S. military veterans might actually do more harm than good, its critics say.

The “Oath of Exit Act,” sponsored by a Florida Republican who lost both legs to a roadside bombing in Afghanistan, recently passed the House as a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act, Stars and Stripes reported.

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast said he created the bill in hopes of helping veterans who struggle with emotional and psychological issues.

“Nearly every week I hear from a veteran who is thinking about taking their own life -- maybe walking into their garage, turning on their car and never coming out,” Mast said while speaking on the House floor.

“Nearly every week I hear from a veteran who is thinking about taking their own life -- maybe walking into their garage, turning on their car and never coming out.”

- U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla.

Mast said the idea for the oath grew from conversations he has had with friends who served in the military and had thoughts of suicide.

The plan calls for veterans to take a voluntary pledge when leaving the armed forces, to continue to look after their brothers- and sisters–in-arms, as well as themselves.

However, some experts say the no-suicide contract might have the opposite effect – resulting in more veterans harming themselves.

“It won’t work, to put it bluntly,” Craig Bryan, a psychologist and executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah, told Stars and Stripes. “At best, it would be a neutral effect, but it could make things worse.”

Bryan, whose research was funded by the Department of Justice, found in a six-month test period that crisis-response plans were more effective than no-suicide contracts in preventing veterans from committing suicide.

No-suicide pacts are not a new concept, and have actually been discouraged as a method for suicide prevention the past 10 years, said Caitlin Thompson, a former director of suicide prevention programs for the Department of Veterans Affairs, Stars and Stripes reported.

The wording of the oath itself could have a negative impact on veterans struggling with suicidal thoughts, Heather O’Beirne Kelly, director of military and veterans’ health policy for the American Psychological Association, told Stars and Stripes in an email.

“The ‘Oath of Exit’ language,” she wrote, “could backfire in lethal ways, by discouraging help-seeking among veterans in crisis and engendering a false sense of security among those to whom the oath is given.”

"The ‘Oath of Exit’ language could backfire in lethal ways, by discouraging help-seeking among veterans in crisis and engendering a false sense of security among those to whom the oath is given.”

- Heather O’Beirne Kelly, American Psychological Association

According to Veteran Suicide Prevention, an average of 20 veterans commit suicide each day, representing 18 percent of all suicide deaths in the United States in 2014 – when veterans constituted 8.5 percent of the U.S. population.