Sailors would get easier access to mental health providers in their own units under a new plan from Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker.
Harker told reporters Wednesday he asked both the Defense Department and Congress to shift funds in the current budget to increase mental health services for members, including more specialists embedded in units.
And he plans to ask Congress for more funds for mental health in the fiscal 2022 budget.
According to Harker, 35% of the Navy and Marine Corps' mental health practitioners are currently assigned to units, "an area we strongly believe that we can get people access to treatment at an early level, access to informal treatment."
Many of the providers are corpsmen trained in behavioral health -- what Harker called the "first response" for mental health care.
"We're also looking at investing in that for next year. I can't go into detail about it. But everyone I've spoken with at [the office of the Secretary of Defense] has said they support it and the request did make it into the budget," he said.
Harker has said mental health care for service members and reducing sexual assault in the ranks are his top priorities as acting secretary.
The Navy saw an increase in its suicide rate from 2017 to 2019, from 20.1 per 100,000 sailors to 21.5 per 100,000. However, the Navy suicide rate has consistently remained below the Defense Department average.
And unofficial figures from 2020 indicate that the service saw a decline in the number of suicides from 2019: 63, down from 72 the previous year.
The Marine Corps' suicide rate has exceeded the all-service rate since 2017, reaching a high of 30.8 per 100,000 Marines in 2018. In 2020, according to non-official DoD data, 60 active duty Marines died by suicide, up from 47 in 2019.
"Every commander I've talked to has lost someone to suicide. They've all experienced it and they all want to get treatment to the people who need it. So many times it happens and you have no idea because people aren't talking about what's going on in their minds, so we need people to open up, start a dialogue," Harker said.
In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S., Harker introduced a video series of service personnel sharing their personal experiences with mental health treatment.
In his video, he notes that he has sought counseling three times in his life: first during his parents' divorce; second, during his own divorce; and third, following a harrowing experience as a Coast Guard officer in February 1993 on the medium endurance cutter Dauntless, when it responded to a capsized Haitian ferry with nearly 2,000 people aboard.
The rescue operation "soon became one of recovery," Harker said in the video, adding that the Dauntless crew pulled the bodies of 80 men, women and children onto the cutter.
After the experience, he said, no one wanted to talk to a mental health professional; they just "wanted to go home."
But, he added, the Coast Guard brought mental health providers and chaplains to Guantanamo Bay and gave the responders the chance to talk with them.
"It gave us the opportunity to process what we had seen and talk about. It was the most important port call I've ever had," Harker said.
He added that service members may experience things most people never see in their lifetimes and encouraged them to talk to someone.
"Don't shelve those experiences away," Harker said. "Reach out."
The Military Crisis Line is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255, press 1. Services also are available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net(link is external) or by text, 838255.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.