On Wednesday, May 28, Dr. Suzanne Coyle, CTS Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Marriage and Family Therapy, Executive Director of the CTS Counseling Center, and Director of Marriage and Family Therapy Program at Christian Theological Seminary addressed most of Central Indiana’s major media on the steps of the Indiana War Memorial. The event was a press conference called by U. S. Senator Joe Donnelly (D – IN) to draw attention to the addition of the Sexton Act to this year’s Defense Spending Bill. In her capacity as President-Elect of the Indiana Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, Dr. Coyle was one of several advocates called on to address the mental health benefits of this proposed legislation for America’s military.
The bill is named for Jacob Sexton, a native of Farmland, Indiana, and a National Guard specialist who tragically took his own life while home on a 15-day leave from Afghanistan in 2009. Jacob's father, Jeff, reached out to Sen. Donnelly last year after the Senator asked a question of then-nominee for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel about the 2012 statistic that found about twice as many service members died from suicide than in combat. Tragically, that trend has accelerated; in 2013, the ratio was nearly four-to-one.
The Sexton Act of 2014 would:
- Require assessments for all service members—Active, Reserve, and Guard. Right now, the best and most consistent screening is happening only for those within the deployment cycle and leaves members of the National Guard and Reserve under-served.
- Establish a working group between the Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services to improve mental health services for the National Guard and Reserve, where service members often rely on civilian health insurance and providers. Despite improvements elsewhere, suicides among National Guard members climbed to a record level in 2013, according to a Department of Defense report.
- Require an inter-agency report to evaluate existing military mental health practices and provide recommendations for improvement. Sen. Donnelly is especially interested in the assessment of peer-to-peer programs for possible expansion across all military branches.
- Ensure that seeking help remains a sign of strength by protecting the privacy of the service member coming forward.
In her remarks, Dr. Coyle stressed the impact Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – the main contributor to the suicide epidemic among our military personnel – has not only on the veteran, but on his or her entire family. Following is the entire text of her statement:
Every returning veteran is part of a family. The kind of family varies from a chosen family, an adopted family, a biological family. Returning veterans are the sons and daughters of mothers, fathers; the single dads of children living with their grandparents; the husband and father of a family who struggled in his absence. Spouses accustomed to serving as both parents for their children must now make room in their relationships; children who have learned to lean only on mom, and mom herself, must now learn to make room for dad. Every family is different yet they share the impact of a returning veteran’s mental illness. In fact, family members who become caregivers to returning veterans often experience secondary PTSD and 40% of them are diagnosed with clinical depression after the return of a veteran family member.
It’s difficult for everyone to get the type of support they need in these cases when a returning veteran’s mental illness impacts the entire family. So, I’m honored to be here today to speak on behalf of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy’s support of the Sexton Suicide Prevention Act sponsored by Senator Donnelly. I’m especially humbled by the courage and vision of the Sextons in finding a way to help prevent the pain of other families from losing a loved one to suicide. This act is an important first step in providing the kind of mental health support that our veterans, non-deployed military troops and their families deserve. Thank you Senator Donnelly for your support and perseverance in laying a foundation for that vision. – Suzanne Coyle