Bill to Decriminalize Military Suicide Clears First Hurdle

For immediate release:

Legislation to Modernize California’s Military Suicide Law Passes Veterans Affairs Committee Unanimously

SACRAMENTO – The national conversation surrounding mental illness and the heightened risks within the Military and Veteran populations has intensified in recent years, with more funds and research being directed towards proactively identifying and treating mental illness each year. However, under the State of California’s incorporation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ); servicemembers are subject to prosecution if they attempt or commit suicide.

This policy sends a mixed message amidst efforts to treat mental illness and prevent suicide attempts among servicemembers. Earlier this year, Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks) introduced Assembly Bill 2273, a first-of-its-kind bill to decriminalize suicide attempts in the state’s military and remove the disincentive for servicemembers to seek treatment for themselves or others. AB 2273 has passed unanimously through the Assembly Veterans Affairs Committee.

The bill, if passed, would apply to members of the Army National Guard, the Air National Guard, the State Military Reserve, and the Naval Militia collectively representing approximately 20,980 servicemembers. There is no record of the California Military Department having taken any legal or disciplinary action against a servicemember committing or contemplating suicide. According to a Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America member survey, an encouraging 77 percent of respondents sought care when it was suggested that they do so. Still, the survey showed that many servicemembers did not seek care because of concern that a mental health diagnosis might affect their career. Those concerns are not unfounded; under the federal Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), servicemembers may be criminally prosecuted in military courts martial for attempting suicide.

“AB 2273 makes an important policy statement to the federal government, and sends a clear message to our servicemembers experiencing a mental health crisis that they can ask for help without fear of prosecution, and that when they do, they will get the mental health support that they need,” said Assemblymember Irwin. “Despite our best attempts to address these tragedies by strengthening supportive services, the trend persists. Service members should be able to seek mental health care without any stigma, real or perceived obstacles, or fear of negative career impact.”

In recent years, active outreach and assistance for those struggling with mental health disorders has been a priority of the California Military Department. In 2015 alone, the Department made over 1500 referrals for various levels of mental health supportive services. Nonetheless, policies within the UCMJ potentially discourage servicemembers from coming forward to seek mental health services for themselves or on behalf of at-risk officers with whom they serve. AB 2273 aligns policy with procedure in the military.

“There is nothing more heartbreaking than a veteran who survived combat not being able to survive the peace that follows.  We must all come together and do everything possible to help address the stigma of mental health injuries and offer support and treatment to all veterans who need it.  This legislation is a solid step in that direction,” said Nathan Fletcher, former California State Assemblyman, Marine Corps Veteran and Founder of Three Wise Men Veterans Foundation, a San Diego-based Veterans nonprofit.

Assemblymember Irwin’s website: http://asmdc.org/irwin