Military Suicide Prevention Bill Focusing on Financial Planning Approved by House

In an unprecedented effort to stem the alarming rate of military suicide through better financial planning remedies, lawmakers approved a proposal that could more readily help troops overwhelmed by money troubles.

In a unanimous vote, the U.S. House on Wednesday directed the military to study how to ensure soldiers and veterans at risk of suicide over severe money woes get more effective financial planning. The legislation was based largely on an investigation by Financial Planning last month that found the majority of military suicides involved troops who had never even deployed.

“In truth, suicide is often the desperate act of a soldier or veteran in a desperate situation – and one important component of that desperation is financial stress,” Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), author of the proposal, said on the House floor. “We err if we think suicide is only a mental health problem.”

During the month of March, Holt said, the U.S. had no combat deaths, while 700 soldiers and veterans died by their own hands.

In arguing for passage of his bill, Holt repeated the central anecdote from Financial Planning’s investigation: “A few years ago, Army Sgt. Angelo Stevens was living with $100,000 in debt,” Holt said. “He had just been told that, because of his deteriorating finances, he was at risk of losing his security clearance. If he lost his clearance, he would lose his job – which would make his debt even more unmanageable.

“Sgt. Stevens met with a military financial planner” – briefly, since 15-minute meetings are typically all that’s allowed. Holt continued: “He left feeling hopeless and humiliated. He told a reporter, ‘I walked out thinking, ‘If I’m dead, my family can get $500,000 in life insurance, but I have to kill myself.’ ”

A few moments after mentioning those wrenching details, a ranking House member interrupted Holt to express his support for the measure and the vote was called.

The House approved an initial $1 million allocation to study the role finances play as a leading precipitating factor to the military suicide epidemic. Supporters believe it will be a first step before broader changes can be made. If the Senate approves and President Obama signs the bill into law, the study could begin Oct. 1, Holt said.

“We need to understand how effectively the Defense Department is providing adequate, unbiased, comprehensive financial planning and financial counseling – and we need to understand the obstacles that prevent military personnel from seeking these services,” Holt argued in his full statement in the Congressional Record. The Defense Department hires hundreds of financial advisors to assist troops, but military policy does not allow the advisors to provide any planning guidance, including on debt management, a vital issue for service members.

In Holt’s statement, he added: “We need to build connections between the mental health professionals and the financial planning professionals who serve our soldiers. Mental health problems and financial problems both contribute to suicide, and we should explore ways to treat these problems together, rather than separately.”

That idea was one of eight strategies that planners interviewed in the Financial Planning investigation had recommended.

In an interview following the vote, Holt was optimistic about passage in the Senate. He notes that the connection between troops who take their own lives and anguish over severe money troubles “has not had any piece of the attention that has been paid to suicide in the military.” Holt has been a leader of a bipartisan coalition that’s succeeded in allocating $120 million since 2011 to efforts intended to reduce the high rate of military suicide.

Two former top military leaders expressed their support for Holt’s legislation.

“We are obligated to do this – it makes sense,” says former Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, who’s also a psychiatrist who’s counseled suicidal service members.

Former Navy Rear Adm. James Barnett said the proposal bridges the divide between addressing deep emotional problems and severe financial concerns. “Over here is mental health and over here it’s financial counseling and [the attitude is], ‘Well, they don’t have anything to do with each other,’ ” Barnett says. “What I think may be lacking is this type of research that shows that there are more avenues of counseling programs and that you have to go beyond that to pick up the factors that are acting on military members and their families. We have to significantly up our game and widen the search for root causes and solutions,” Barnett adds.

At the end of his argument for passage of his proposal, Holt noted that a financial planner – Anapolis, Md.-based Jan Chapman, who was featured in Financial Planning’s story – reached beyond her official role to help Stevens, the soldier who considered suicide for financial reasons, because she overheard his desperation during a fruitless conversation with another planner. Holt said getting comprehensive financial planning shouldn’t require random acts of fate, but should become common practice.

“We can do better. We can design our military to be more responsive, compassionate, and helpful to soldiers like Sgt. Stevens,” Holt insisted. “We can pull more soldiers back from the abyss.”

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Comments (5)
@Judy G: Right now the military does not allow financial planning for soldiers and veterans, even if they are in terrible financial straights. The hands of military planners who work under contract for the DoD - and of planners who are pro bono volunteers - are tied. If they jump in to do more, they risk losing their jobs. One of the many aims of the legislation is to study this issue and figure out how to fix this situation.

To the contrary, this legislation is not reinventing the wheel. Although the military knows that financial stressors are top precipitating factors to suicide, it has never studied the role that financial issues play in these deaths. This is so despite the fact that the issue of military suicide has been studied intensively for years by academics and by the military itself.

If Michelle Obama was indeed pushing something similar last year, could you please post some information about it? I am unaware of any similar program.

We're not really "throwing a lot of money" at this problem. Reducing military suicide is one of the military's top priorities, according to Secretary Hagel. And $1 million to study this issue is a small sum in terms of the size of the Defense budget.

You are right about the insurance issue. The Pentagon says that just about all the survivors of active duty soldiers who killed themselves received full insurance benefits.
Posted by Ann M | Thursday, June 26 2014 at 10:21PM ET
At the risk of sounding contrarian, The Dept. of Defense already has a program. I was an independent contractor with them for 4 years. This is a case of government being so big the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Also; Michelle Obama was pushing to create the same redundant thing a year or so ago. there are numerous support organizations trying to achieve the same thing already in place.
I was contracted with MHN services which provides emotional counseling to service-members and their families and about 6 years ago they set up a financial counseling division because they noticed long ago the correlation between money and emotional issues. While I worked on assignments we had rules that got in the way of being able to do our jobs. That needs to be dealt with before we can be effective. We are already throwing a lot of money at this problem, but as usual, legislators that know nothing about the subject are in charge. We don't need more money; we need to be effective, but what legislator would vote against a "warm fuzzy" bill and jeopardize their status in the legislature?
I observed a number of possible reasons for the high suicide rate and financial problems; and more programs isn't the answer. There needs to be more education on finances of all sorts. MHN even supports a credentialed program that counselors were highly recommended to take in order to help service members understand credit, military benefits, legal issues etc.
As for the comment on the life insurance not paying because of suicide: all life insurance will pay a death benefit after the policy has been in force for 2 years. Since Sgt. Stevens had achieved that rank, it is possible he signed up for insurance upon enlistment and a benefit was payable. I would need to know more to say for sure; but don't rule it out.

I am not against what is trying to be accomplished here, I just don't feel we need to reinvent the wheel.
Posted by Judy G | Saturday, June 21 2014 at 12:08PM ET
The sad thing is that the soldier had only a 15 minutes conversation with a planner and left feeling hopeless and humiliated. And people don't realize that life insurance policies exclude payment to beneficiaries if one commits suicide. So the family is still destitute and without a loved one, making the situation that much worse.
Posted by David B | Friday, June 20 2014 at 8:14PM ET
Well done Ann. Drawing attention to problems so they can be addressed and fixed is sometimes the hardest step. The recent articles on this topic surely helped propel this forward.
Posted by Sandra F | Friday, June 20 2014 at 1:43PM ET
That really is an awesome result although it is at first only a study and many of the remarks are politically correct. Hopefully, the results of the study will allow for the creation of a unit within the military that will provide the needed financial education.
Posted by Consumer A | Friday, June 20 2014 at 12:35PM ET
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