Proposed Veteran Suicide Prevention Bill Might Actually Cause More Veteran Suicides

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A bill sponsored by a congressman who lost both of his legs to a roadside bombing in Afghanistan, a bill which is intended to curb suicides among veterans, may actually have the opposite effect according to some critics. The “Oath of Exit Act” has already been passed by the House as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

As reported by the Stars and Stripes, the concept presented by Rep. Brian Mast involves veterans making a commitment to contact other veterans before harming themselves. The intention is for veterans to find support within their community and, hopefully, lower the suicide rate.

However, some suicide prevention experts believe the “Oath of Exit” – ultimately a form of no-suicide contract – will be ineffective and may backfire. They state that the concept is outdated and has been proven not to work.

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

The “Oath of Exit” involves the person swearing or affirming “to continue to be the keeper of my brothers- and sisters-in-arms” and promising “to not bring harm to myself without speaking to my fellow veterans first.”

Bryan believes such a commitment could actually increase the sense of guilt and shame a veteran may feel should they struggle with suicidal thoughts.

During a six-month research period funded by the Department of Justice, Bryan found that crisis-response plans were more effective at preventing veteran suicides than no-suicide contracts.

Caitlin Thompson, a former director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ suicide prevention program, agrees with Bryan’s assessment and asserts that the use of no-suicide contracts has been discouraged for nearly a decade.

“It isn’t just that it didn’t work,” said Thompson. “It actually had the opposite effect.”

Thompson, who is currently a vice president of the Cohens Veterans Network, went on to say, “It made it so that the person who signed it wouldn’t talk with their provider about feeling suicidal because of this fear of, ‘I signed this promise.’”

Based on the legislation, signing the “Oath of Exit” would be voluntary. The verbiage is included in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which was approved by the House on July 14. The Senate, which is currently on recess, it expected to continue working on the NDAA upon their return on September 5.

It is estimated that an average of 20 US veterans commit suicide each day. As of 2014, this represented 18 percent of all suicide deaths in the nation, even though veterans make up only 8.5 percent of the total US population.