Improving Military and Law Enforcement Mental Health


Mental Health Services for Servicemembers


One of Joe's top priorities as U.S. Senator was to prevent military suicides and improve mental health care for servicemembers. Since joining the Senate in 2013, Joe worked non-stop to find bipartisan solutions to combat military suicide and make sure we take better care of our servicemembers and their families. Through his role on the Senate Armed Services Committee, he successfully advanced commonsense, bipartisan legislation. In his first four years in the Senate, Joe was successful in getting four military mental health reform efforts passed and signed into law. Joe's bipartisan Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act requires annual mental health assessments for all servicemembers, and provisions from Joe’s bipartisan “Servicemember and Veteran Care Package” improves access to quality mental health care for servicemembers and their families. Both are now law.

The Sexton Act

The first bill Joe introduced as U.S. Senator was the bipartisan Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act of 2013. Introduced with Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), the bill will require all servicemembers, including the Active, Guard, and Reserve components, to receive an annual mental health assessment. In December 2014, the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act of 2014 was signed into law as part of the national defense bill. In 2017, the Sexton Act was implemented throughout the Armed Services, including the Indiana National Guard. Joe announced in November 2017 that the Sexton Act had been implemented at the Indiana National Guard, alongside Adjutant General of the Indiana National Guard Major General Carr and Jeff Sexton, father of Jacob Sexton.

The Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act

  • Requires annual mental health assessments for all servicemembers, including members of the Active, Guard, and Reserve components. Previously, the best and most consistent screening was happening only for those within the deployment cycle, which can leave non-deployed members of the Active, Reserve, and Guard components underserved. 

  • Maintains strong privacy protections for servicemembers. We must ensure that seeking help remains a sign of strength by protecting the privacy of the servicemember coming forward. 

  • Requires a Pentagon report to evaluate existing military mental health practices and provide recommendations for improvement. This report would help identify which programs are working and which need to be fixed. A specific focus of the report will be identifying successful peer-to-peer programs that address the need for a more bottom-up approach to identifying warning signs and combatting stigma in each of the Services, with the intention of future expansion.

The Sexton Act is named for Jacob Sexton, a member of the Indiana National Guard from Farmland, Indiana, who tragically took his own life in 2009 while home on a 15-day leave from Afghanistan. Joe worked with Jacob's parents in an effort to help prevent other families from going through what the Sexton family experienced after losing Jacob in 2009.

The Servicemember and Veteran Mental Health Care Package

Introduced in March 2015, the Servicemember and Veteran Mental Health Care Package ("Care Package") aims to improve mental health outcomes for servicemembers and ensure that our servicemembers have access to quality mentalh heath care whether they seek private sector care through specially-trained community mental health providers or through the Department of Defense. Joe originally introduced the "Care Package" as three bipartisan bills. 

Several provisions of the "Care Package" were passed as part of the national defense bill in December 2015 and signed into law. The final provision of Joe's "Care Package" was signed into law as part of the national defense bill in December 2016.

The Military and Veteran Mental Health Care Provider Assessment Act (co-sponsored by Senator Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi) will:

  • Require Department of Defense primary care and mental health providers to receive evidence-based training on suicide risk recognition and management.

  • Require training be updated to keep up with changes in mental health care best practices.

The Community Provider Readiness Recognition Act (co-sponsored by Senator Joni Ernst, R-Iowa) will:

  • Establish a special designation for private sector, community mental health providers that demonstrate - either through training or past experience - a strong knowledge of military culture and evidence-based therapies for mental health issues common to veterans and servicemembers. This provision was inspired by the Star Behavioral Health Provider Network, a program led by Purdue’s Military Family Research Institute.

  • Create a regularly-updated online registry, so veterans and servicemembers can search for these specially-designated community providers in their area.

The Frontline Mental Health Provider Training Act (co-sponsored by Senator John Boozman, R-Arkansas) will: 

  • Allow a Department of Defense pilot program to train physician assistants to help meet increasing demand for mental health services among servicemembers and their families. 


Mental Health Services for Law Enforcement Officers

Law enforcement officers put their lives on the line to protect and serve communities in Indiana and across the country every day, and sometimes it means they experience challenging or even horrific situations. That’s why Joe wrote, and introduced with Senator Todd Young, bipartisan legislation to support mental health services for law enforcement officers. They introduced the bill in the Senate in early April 2017 and it passed unanimously in May. U.S. Representatives Susan Brooks (IN-05) and Val Demings (FL-10) introduced the companion bill in the House of Representatives in late April, it passed the House in November, and it cleared the Senate in December. President Trump signed Joe’s bill into law in January 2018.

The Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act will:

  • Help law enforcement agencies establish or enhance mental health services for their officers. 

  • Make grants available to initiate peer mentoring pilot programs, direct the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services to develop resources for mental health providers based on the specific mental health challenges faced by law enforcement.

  • Support law enforcement officers by studying the effectiveness of crisis hotlines and annual mental health checks.

  • Direct the Departments of Defense (DoD), Justice, and Veterans Affairs (VA) to confer about existing DoD and VA mental health practices and services that could be adopted by law enforcement agencies.

Recognizing the stress and trauma that law enforcement officers experience and in an effort to support officers, IMPD created initiatives through the Office of Professional Development and Officer Wellness and started a peer mentoring program. These efforts by IMPD helped inspire Joe’s bill.

The legislation was supported by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the Indiana State Fraternal Order of Police, the National Association of Police Officers (NAPO), the Major County Sheriffs of America (MCSA), the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA), and the Sergeants Benevolent Association

In January 2018, Joe brought Taylor Nielsen of the Lebanon, Indiana Police Department to the President’s State of the Union. In 2016, Nielsen arrived at a traumatic crime scene, where a young mother and her four-year-old son had been murdered. The experience left Nielsen struggling with mental health challenges. Nielsen’s openness about her mental health challenges as a police officer helped advance Joe’s Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act. Joe also joined local elected leaders, local law enforcement, and the Indiana Fraternal Order of Police at events across the state to highlight the importance of the new law and how it will benefit Hoosier law enforcement agencies and officers. 



In the News

Servicemembers & Veterans 

South Bend Tribune: Bill that Supports Troops is Now the Law (December 2014)

It’s popular for members of Congress to say that they “support the troops,” but backing those words with thoughtful, meaningful action is what really matters.

The passage of the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Act of 2014 promises real assistance to members of the military, putting the focus on helping them get mental health support and reducing military suicides. On Friday, President Obama signed the bill, which is part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

The bill is the second version of a measure introduced last year by Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly. Donnelly’s commitment to preventing suicide among military members — and his hard work in support of those who serve in general — has been unwavering.

Named for a National Guardsman from Farmland, Ind., who shot himself to death while on leave in 2009, the bill requires annual, face-to-face mental health assessments for all active duty, reserve and National Guard service members. Currently, the military focuses mental health services on deploying and returning troops, even though research indicates that suicide is more common among soldiers who never deploy.

The need for such support is reflected in these sobering figures: Last year saw the combat deaths of 132 service members, while 475 members took their own lives.

In introducing the measure, Donnelly noted that “there is not one solution, no cure-all to prevent military suicide. But this problem is not too big to solve.”

And the passage of the Jacob Sexton Act Military Act of 2014 is a significant step in preventing such tragic losses. In a statement, Donnelly calls the legislation he fought for “common sense change (that) will ensure we are focusing not only on our Armed Forces’ physical readiness but also mental readiness.”

It’s no less than the men and women who protect this country deserve.

Fort Wayne Journal Gazette: Donnelly Seeks to 'End the Tragedy' (December 2014)

By: Brian Francisco

WASHINGTON – More U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen are being lost to suicide than to combat, U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly said Wednesday.

During 2013, he said, 475 members of the military took their lives, compared with 132 killed in battle.

"That’s happened two years straight now," Donnelly, D-Ind., said at a Capitol Hill news conference, adding that 2014 has followed a similar pace.

"We have to break the chain. We have to end the tragedy," he said.

Donnelly, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has sponsored legislation requiring yearly mental health assessments for all active, National Guard and Reserve members of the military.

His proposal is incorporated into the defense bill that comes before the Senate for a vote today or Friday. The House approved the bill last week.

Donnelly’s measure, called the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, is named for an east-central Indiana soldier who, at age 21, fatally shot himself in 2009 in a Muncie movie theater while on leave from his deployment to Afghanistan.

Military suicides "also happen to young men and women who have never been overseas, who have never been deployed," Donnelly said. "And so this is a servicewide problem."

Currently, he said, mental health screenings are required only for troops on a deployment cycle. His legislation includes provisions to safeguard the privacy of personnel who seek and receive mental health treatment, and it calls for the Pentagon to evaluate and report on its mental health practices.

Pete Duffy, legislative director of the National Guard Association of the United States, said the Guard had the highest suicide rate among military branches in 2013 – 33.4 suicides for every 100,000 troops. Sexton was a Guard member from Farmland in Randolph County.

By comparison, the national suicide rate in 2012 was roughly 13 deaths for every 100,000 people, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which has endorsed Donnelly’s legislation.

"We’re going to have the assessments. Now we need to have funded programs to address mental health concerns when they are discovered in the assessments," said Duffy, a retired Army colonel.

"The tragedy to Jacob, Jacob’s family, the losing (military) unit, the loss of readiness cannot continue."

Members of advocacy groups for suicide prevention, mental health, military families and family therapy also spoke in favor of Donnelly’s bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

Donnelly said he can’t tell how his legislation, if signed into law, might affect recruitment and re-enlistment.

"But I will tell you that if I were in the service at this time and knew that I had the option to have somebody to talk to and it wouldn’t be stigmatized, that seeking help would actually be considered a strength, I would think that would be a plus for continuing (military) service," he said.

Earlier, Donnelly said the assessments also might uncover mental health problems that can lead military personnel to cause harm to others.

"This can help in case after case after case, not only suicide but also for those who are facing challenges – that they have somebody to talk to and maybe prevent them from taking it out on somebody else," he said.

Fort Wayne Journal Gazette: Editorial: Making Good on Our Debt to Veterans (March 2015)

Some politicians spend their days clamoring for war. A few, like U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, devote their best energy to helping those who paid the price for having fought.

It’s easier to grasp the ordeal a physically wounded serviceman or servicewoman has endured: We see the wheelchairs, the crutches, the artificial limbs. Donnelly is trying to see that those with the invisible wounds of mental illness also get our attention.

Mental health care is in crisis. Many don’t seek needed diagnosis and treatment; others find that specialists and resources are in short supply. Those who’ve served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea and World War II have paid a special price for these shortages. In the first nine months of last year, there were 326 suicides among servicemen on active duty, in the National Guard and reserves. Year-in, year-out, veterans suffer even more of these off-the-battlefield casualties: Twenty-two suicides per day.

Last year, when Donnelly was able to get a law enacted requiring yearly mental assessments for all current military personnel, he promised to widen the focus to better mental care for veterans. 

Last week, the senator began that effort by introducing what he called the “Servicemember and Veteran Mental Health Care Package.”  The three bills it comprises would:

  • Require the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to coordinate resources and policies and provide suicide-prevention training for all who care for servicemembers and veterans;  

  • Provide new ways for private health providers to understand and treat mental disorders that afflict those who have seen military service; and

  • Set up a pilot program to explore training of and reliance on physicians’ assistants who specialize in psychiatric medicine.

As he did in order to pass last year’s Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, Donnelly has taken steps to ensure that the new effort will be viewed as nonpartisan, lining up Republican cosponsors for all three of his new bills.

Its eminently worthwhile purpose is no guarantee that Donnelly’s mental health care package won’t be lost amid the bluster and rancor that so often prevail in Congress these days. But when America sends its sons and daughters off to fight, it makes an implicit commitment to care for their wounds, both physical and mental, for the rest of their lives. Amid wars and rumors of war, Congress must take time to remember the warriors and the price they’ve paid.

Indy Star: Better Mental Health Care Training Key To Helping Veterans, Sen. Donnelly Says (May 2015)

By: Shari Rudavsky

A few months ago, President Barack Obama signed a law that could have saved the lives of Jeff Sexton's and Gregg Keesling's sons, who both committed suicide while serving overseas.

But the law, which requires an annual mental health evaluation for every service member, would not necessarily have helped Andrea Carlile and her husband, Wesley.

For the past six years, Wesley Carlile has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from his second deployment. Andrea, 36, faced "secondary PTSD," as she sought to help her husband, who at times became abusive.

On Wednesday, the Lapel mother of two sat beside Sexton and Keesling, as U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly held a news conference at the Indiana War Memorial in Downtown Indianapolis to give details about his new proposal that could help ensure veterans and service members don't go without mental health services they may need.

The Community Provider Readiness Recognition Act, which has bipartisan support, would draw upon a Purdue University program that trains health care providers in how to deliver mental health care to service members and their families. The Military Family Research Institute created its Star Behavioral Health Providers program, now in eight states, to create more awareness among professionals about the distinct medical and mental health needs of this population.

Now, Donnelly's legislation, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, aims to build on that program to increase the number of private practice providers with this background and to create a military-friendly designation for those who complete the training. It also would offer an online registry of all those who have completed the training.

"We must do everything we can to provide them with the care they need," said Donnelly, D-Ind., noting that Indiana has the fourth-largest National Guard contingent in the country.

The first step was passing legislation to require the mental health assessments. The Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, signed into law in December, requires annual mental health exams for all service members, whether they be on active duty, in the Reserves or in the National Guard.

Now, Donnelly said, the focus should fall on making sure that providers are in place who can handle these issues.

Doing everything that one can for active service members and other veterans must include family members as well, said Andrea Carlile, who wound up going for civilian counseling while her husband sought care through the Veterans Affairs hospital in Marion.

"They did an excellent job with him," she said, "but one challenge is that I didn't feel like I was part of the treatment."

Wesley still suffers the after-effects of his service, said Andrea, who wrote a book about their experiences, "The War That Came Home." Wesley takes 12 medicines, including some to help with the PTSD that he still battles.

The more providers who can help veterans like Wesley, the better, she said.

"We want to continue to get as much help as possible," she said.

While VA hospitals have numerous resources in place to help those in need, often it can be difficult for those who do not live nearby to access those resources, Donnelly said.

Under the legislation, physician assistants in rural areas could receive the training, so they could help those in their areas with the counseling they need, he said.

It's not just a matter of providing care but also about reducing the stigma associated with asking for help, Donnelly said. The more focus put on such services and the more available they are, he said, the less stigma there likely will be over time.

About six years ago, Jacob Sexton knew he was in trouble and even mentioned it to a friend of his after he was deployed, said his father, Jeff Sexton of Farmland. His friend shrugged and said, "Too late, buddy. We're already on the bus."

"He tried to grin and bear it and go on but, unfortunately, it got to be too much," Jeff Sexton said. "A lot of guys are still afraid to speak up to somebody in the military, afraid it will get back to somebody."

In 2009, Jacob, 21, shot himself in a Muncie theater during a 10-day mid-deployment leave from a tour in Afghanistan. After his son's death, Jeff Sexton lobbied his congressional representatives to pass the law that bears his son's name, which requires the annual mental health assessment.

Chancellor Keesling also feared that no one would take seriously his concerns about his own mental health. He spent some time on suicide watch after a 2007 deployment, said his father, Gregg Keesling. The VA knew about his struggles. But the National Guard could not see his medical records.

When Keesling, 25, was called up for a second tour by the National Guard, he did not mention his mental health history. His father urged him to consider going AWOL. But Keesling refused.

On June 19, 2009, he killed himself while serving in Iraq.

South Bend Tribune: Opinion: Troops' Health (June 2015)

From The Times (Munster)

Fresh from his success last year of getting additional mental health screening for troops returning from battles overseas, U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., is pressing his advantage.

In a speech on the Senate floor recently, Donnelly remembered two Hoosier service members who committed suicide and pushed for his Service Member and Veteran Mental Health Care Package.

The “care package” includes incentives for private mental health care providers to be educated in treating service members and veterans, requires that Department of Defense providers receive instruction in suicide-risk recognition, and encourages the Pentagon to develop psychiatric physician assistants to meet the demand for mental health care among military members and their families.

Donnelly has cited Defense Department figures that show an average of 22 veterans a day commit suicide. That number is alarming.

Donnelly has been outspoken in pushing for mental health benefits to support our military and their families, but he isn’t the only one.

U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., is among them. She is a 23-year veteran of the military and knows what our troops are going through.

“As the nature of war changes, the injuries our warriors sustain also change. Increasingly, theirs are invisible wounds, which do not have simple treatment and do not always manifest immediately,” she said. “Just as these veterans remained faithful to our country on the battlefield, it is our turn as their representatives to remain faithful to them and it is our responsibility as a nation to, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, ‘care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.’”

It is difficult to forget that the Civil War of which Lincoln spoke ended 150 years ago.

Merrillville farmer Israel Pierce, who served as a sergeant in the 99th Indiana Infantry during the Civil War, committed suicide 20 years after the war ended following a long and unsuccessful effort to obtain veteran disability benefits.

Donnelly told of two Hoosier veterans whose suicides were much more recent — Spc. Chancellor Keesling and Spc. Jacob Sexton.

It is clear that the mental health of servicemen and women and their families is of utmost concern. War is hell, and the Americans transitioning from war to peace need our support.

Donnelly’s care package seems like the least we can do for those who have served their country under extremely difficult conditions.

NWI Times: Donnelly puts military suicide prevention above party politics (October 2015)

By: Dan Carden

U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., is poised to again pick the practical over the partisan, putting him at odds with President Barack Obama and his fellow Senate Democrats.

This time Donnelly plans to vote with the Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., to override Obama's expected veto of the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual spending plan for the nation's military that also contains Donnelly's latest proposals to reduce servicemember and veteran suicides.

The measure passed the Senate on Wednesday, 70-27, and cleared the House earlier this month, 270-156.

However, the White House last week threatened a veto because the legislation spends $38 billion more than permitted under the 2011 budget sequestration caps by classifying ordinary military spending as emergency overseas contingency funding.

While Obama repeatedly has urged the Republican-controlled Congress to set new limits on defense and discretionary spending, no agreement has been reached. Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the president will not support a "budgeting gimmick" to get around the current caps.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., promised his members will sustain the president's veto, despite the veto-proof margin by which the plan originally passed the Senate. A veto override vote in the House is expected to fall well short of the required two-thirds majority.

Donnelly said he understands Obama's fiscal concerns, and he agrees with the president that there are better ways to increase defense spending.

But he's still urging Obama to sign the National Defense Authorization Act, because rejecting good legislation while waiting for a perfect plan to come along is the wrong choice.

"I am disappointed to hear the president plans to veto the bill," Donnelly said. "In times like these, we need to set a clear policy with the Department of Defense to move forward and protect our national security, and take care of our men and women in uniform.

"We should all be able to agree on that."

Speaking to Hoosier reporters, the first-term senator, who recently crossed party lines by opposing Obama's clean air rules and supporting a proposal to defund Planned Parenthood, emphasized he believes protecting national security goes beyond the military.

"The safety and security of communities across Indiana rely on federal, state and local law enforcement, on first responders, on strong border security and on the resources we need to combat drug trafficking and drug addiction," Donnelly said.

In addition, Donnelly said his "care package" included in the defense legislation is urgently needed. His package would improve mental health programs for servicemembers and veterans by increasing the number of providers and training all military personnel in suicide risk recognition and management.

Between January and June, 219 active duty and reserve servicemembers committed suicide.

That's just four fewer than during the same six-month period last year, despite increased military mental health screenings provided under Donnelly's 2014 Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act.

An estimated 22 veterans also take their own lives every day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"The suicide rate among servicemembers and vets is not just a tragedy, but a crisis for our country that we have to get down to zero," said Donnelly, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

He is confident any revisions to the defense spending plan will leave intact his suicide prevention provisions.

But Donnelly said he'd rather have them enacted into law immediately, rather than wait for a compromise that could take weeks or months to come together.

"We must protect our security and provide for our servicemembers and their families, and I urge the president to re-consider his veto threat and sign the defense bill into law," Donnelly said.

Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are eager to pounce on Obama for vetoing legislation that includes a pay increase for U.S. troops.

"The president wants to take a stand for greater domestic spending, and he wants to use the vital authorities and support for men and women in uniform as leverage," said U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "At a time of increasing threat to our nation, this is foolish, misguided, cynical and dangerous."

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, presidents have vetoed military spending and construction proposals six times since 1961, most recently by Republican George W. Bush in 2008.

Each time, Congress failed to override the veto, eventually removed the provisions the president objected to and the measures were signed into law.

WISH: Donnelly’s Care Package signed into law (November 2015)

By: Adam Staten 

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) -- Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly has a goal. He wants to eliminate military suicides and a new law is meant to help accomplish that.

There were 443 military suicides last year. It was the third year in a row when more lives were lost to suicide than combat.

Chance Keesling took his own life while serving in the Army in Iraq in 2009. At the time, his father Gregg set out to improve conditions for others in the military.

"Hopefully this country will learn a lot of how to reach out to soldiers in trouble," he said at the time, "and that that'll be his legacy."

Monday when Sen. Donnelly (D-Indiana) called a new conference to spread the word about a new law, Gregg Keesling was there.

"This is the seventh Thanksgiving that we've been without our beloved son," he said.

It's the second time that Donnelly has won passage of a new law geared toward better treatment for members of the military and veterans.

"We've been able to get, first, mental health assessments for all," he said. "Now, making care easier to find for all."

It's for the soldiers but it's also for the families. Gregg Keesling says his goal now is to spread the word about better treatment options.

"So, that's my thing," he said. "I'm really calling out to every family. You see this. You know there's trouble and don't hesistate."

Do it, he said, "in my son's honor."

The new law, known as the Care Package, calls for more training for local medical providers who treat veterans as well as more training for medical providers in the Department of Defense.

It also calls for training physician assistants to specialize in psychiatric care.

Indy Star Column: Donnelly fights the tragedy of military suicides (December 2015)

By: Matt Tully

Gregg Keesling stood in the cold Monday morning outside the Indiana War Memorial, showing me pictures of his late son, Chancellor, an Army reservist who committed suicide while serving in Iraq more than six years ago.

“This issue is so hard for people to talk about,” Keesling said as he scrolled through photographs on his phone, stopping on one that showed his son’s tombstone. “But we have to do more and talk more.”

Keesling was at the War Memorial to stand on stage with U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, who has made doing more to address the heartbreak of military suicides the centerpiece of his first term in the Senate. He’s doing so at a time when suicides among active soldiers outpace combat deaths, and when an average of 22 veterans a day take their own lives.

“They’re moms and dads, and brothers and sisters, and husbands and wives,” Donnelly said. “This has to end.”

In front of a handful of reporters, Donnelly talked about recently passed legislation — known as The Care Package — that seeks to ensure service members and veterans have more access to high-quality mental health care, and that the care is provided by professionals trained to deal with their specific needs. Donnelly and a trio of Republicans co-authored different provisions in the legislation, which complements a bipartisan bill the senator pushed through last year to provide annual mental health assessments to service members.

“This is about the needs of our service members and our veterans,” Donnelly said. “It has nothing to do with Democrat or Republican.”

Branchburg sets forum to discuss affordable housing

At a time when so little is being done in Washington to address big problems, and when partisanship is polluting just about every area of policy, domestic and international, Donnelly’s news conference was a hopeful reminder that Congress can still tackle important issues. And it doesn’t get much more important than this.

Last year, 443 active duty men and women committed suicide. Sadly, the numbers are similar this year.

Those taking their lives have served their country with honor, often during multiple deployments, but too often the trauma they endure — trauma caused by injuries, stress or other challenges of military life — has gone untreated, or not treated appropriately.

Keesling recalled the headaches his son experienced after a latrine he was in exploded, the stress his son was under as his marriage crumbled, and the lack of communication between the Army and the reserves about his mental health issues after he left one for the other. But, Keesling said, efforts to address such problems have begun to improve in recent years.

The legislation Donnelly co-authored is aimed at improving and expanding access to mental health care both in the military and in communities across the nation. The country, he said, should not tolerate instances of service members failing to find help when they are searching for it.

It certainly should not. We should not. This issue is too critical, and those who serve the country have done too much, to leave them without the support they need.

Major Scott Edwards, the Indiana National Guard’s behavioral health officer, said it is important to remember that most of those who serve in combat do not experience mental health issues. “Yet we are not invulnerable,” he said. And when help is needed, “We need behavioral health providers who understand what it’s like to be in the military.”

Donnelly’s legislation creates a “service member-friendly mental health care” designation, and an online registry of such providers, which will make it easier for veterans and active duty members to find help while in their home communities. The legislation also seeks to improve health provider training within government and address a shortage of medical professionals addressing this issue, in part by training more physician assistants.

It’s just one step forward, he said, and more will be needed.

As the senator talked Monday, Keesling stood to his side. He said last week marked the seventh Thanksgiving in which his family has been without Chancellor. His son would now be in his early 30s, perhaps a father. A day doesn’t pass without his family thinking about him.

“It never gets any easier,” Keesling said. “All you have left is to try to reach out and help others.”

He has done so by reaching out to families who have suffered heartbreaks like his. And by standing with politicians who, like Donnelly, do the right thing.

Fort Wayne Journal Gazette: Donnelly's legislation in National Defense Authorization Act (December 2016) 

By: Brian Francisco 

Legislation introduced by Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., was included in the National Defense Authorization Act signed last week by President Barack Obama.

Donnelly's provision allows the Department of Defense to establish a pilot program to expand the availability of physician assistants to provide mental health care evaluations and services for members of the military and their families.

It was the fourth provision of Donnelly's Servicemember and Veteran Mental Health Care Package to be signed into law since 2014. The others require yearly mental health assessments for all military service personnel; create a special designation for private-sector mental health providers that demonstrate a strong knowledge of military culture and mental health issues; and require Defense Department primary care and mental health care providers to receive training on suicide risk recognition and management.

Obama also recently signed a military veterans bill introduced by Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-2nd. The Veterans Mobility Safety Act of 2016 will require the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish comprehensive standards for providers of automobile adaptive equipment, including wheelchair lifts and reduced-effort steering and braking systems.

WIBC: Looking Them in the Eye: How the Sexton Act Could Save People (November 2017)

By: Chris Davis

INDIANAPOLIS--The phone call that Jeff and Barb Sexton got one night in October 2009 was the phone call no parent should ever get.

"Ten o'clock at night, his brother called me and said Jacob had shot himself, but was still breathing," said Jeff Sexton. "That was the longest 30-minute ride of my life, to get from our home to the hospital."

Sexton, who was 21, and on leave from Afghanistan, where he served with the Indiana National Guard, shot himself in a movie theater in Muncie.

"When we got to the hospital, they took us into a little room off to the side, and I knew then- it destroyed me. It destroyed my wife," said the senior Sexton, who was at the Indiana National Guard facility in Indianapolis Monday, where Senator Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who authored the bill that became law in 2014, talked about how the military now requires you to get a mental exam, as well as be checked out physically, every year.

The law was named for Sexton-The Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act.

"It has now been implemented across our armed forces this year, including by the National Guard," said Donnelly. "It recognizes that mental fitness, like physical fitness, is a crucial component of military readiness."

"Every day we sit with soldiers and airmen and service members of all ranks and stature and we talk to them and we look 'em in the eye," said Major Scott Edwards, a military psychologist and Chief Behavioral Sciences Officer of the Indiana National Guard.

He described the exam as a series of questions by someone who's trained to recognize the signs that someone is mentally ill, or if they are showing signs of PTSD or some other indication that suicide is a possibility. The person giving the test can then refer the person to a professional for further help.

"Because of its requirement that all service members are screened, and its focus on maintaining privacy throughout the process, more service members feel comfortable admitting they they're struggling, and more have asked for help," said Edwards.

The Indiana National Guard, which is the sixth largest National Guard in the country, has been leading the way by fully implementing the Act and requiring all of its members to be screened.

"From day one, the Indiana National Guard stood up," said Jeff Sexton. He said the Guard has been helping he and his wife both cope with their loss for the past eight years. "They have a chance here to reach out to somebody, where somebody in the general public might not have those resources."

Sexton said he is also a veteran and understands why his son took his life. But, he wants to help other Hoosiers and other Americans whose family members might be struggling the same way as his son.

"Jacob wanted to be a soldier. Unfortunately for him, things got a little too tough for him overseas. He'd seen too many things- too many children get killed. He knew he had to be a good soldier and go back. But, he couldn't go back. So, in a split second he decided to take his life."

Sexton said his hope is that making people sit down with a trained professional, look them in the eye, and answer those key questions, will get them the help they need to deal with their feelings before they make that decision.

WIBC: A Hoosier Face on the American Military Suicide Problem (September 2018)

By: Chris Davis

RANDOLPH COUNTY, Ind.--Nine years ago Jacob Sexton was deployed to Afghanistan. When the Indiana guardsman came home to Randolph County for a 15-day leave, he committed suicide. His story is part of the reason more suicides may be prevented.

"He said we're gonna go to Goodwill and get coats for the kids in Afghanistan," said his mom, Barb Sexton, recalling their last conversation. In 2013, she spoke at a news conference when the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, or the Sexton Act, was passed.

In observance of National #SuicidePreventionMonth, Joe gave a speech on the Senate floor today – to recognize those we’ve lost and to discuss legislative efforts to prevent suicide. Watch his full speech here: 

That Act requires all people in the military to get an annual mental health checkup, to make sure they are not fighting a battle that they can't win alone, said Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.). 

He said on the Senate floor Tuesday that all branches of the military now provide those checkups. He said privacy is a part of that.

"It's critically important these brave men and women who came forward can get the support they need without suffering professionally for just seeking help," he said.

Barb Sexton said her son had been considering getting counseling for PTSD-related issues, but didn't do it.

"He didn't really want to seek that kind of treatment because he might've been looked down on," she said, acknowledging that people in the military sometimes fear they will lose face, and even risk promotions or security clearances if they seek help.

Donnelly said it's not just a problem for people in the military, but that 1,000 Hoosiers die of suicide each year.

"We must be working year-round, and across the aisle, there’s no Democrats or Republicans in this, to find the solutions that provide Americans with the help they need to get through their most trying times. Over the past several years, Congress has found a number of bipartisan solutions to help address this tragic problem."

In early 2017, Donnelly and Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) introduced the bipartisan Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act, to help law enforcement agencies establish or enhance mental health services for their officers. It also made grants available to initiate peer mentoring pilot programs and supported the study of crisis hotlines and annual mental health checks for officers. It was signed into law in January 2018. 

In May 2017, Donnelly and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced the bipartisan National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, to improve the effectiveness of the current suicide hotline, including to see if a 3-digit number would better connect those in need of assistance. 

The legislation was signed into law last month by President Trump.

Law Enforcement 

News and Tribune: New law supports mental health aid for Indiana police (February 2018)

By: Aprile Rickert

NEW ALBANY — Legislation signed into law last month is expected to help build mental health support for officers across Indiana and the U.S.

U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, visited the New Albany Police Department on Monday to discuss Senate Bill 867, the Law Enforcement and Mental Health and Wellness Act.

It is designed to provide resources to help law enforcement agencies establish or add to the mental health services offered to officers. Donnelly co-sponsored the bill, first drafted in April 2017, with fellow Hoosier Senator Todd Young, a Republican. It was signed into law in January by President Donald Trump.

Donnelly was joined at a news conference by New Albany Police Chief Todd Bailey; Toby Deaton, vice president for the Indiana State Fraternal Order of Police; and New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan, who opened the media event by recognizing Donnelly's efforts.

When he took the podium, the senator referenced the risks police face when on the job.

“Law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every single day to protect us here in Indiana and across the country,” Donnelly said. “Sometimes they experience situations that really defy description, the things that our officers walk into. When they knock on the door, they never know what's going to happen on the other side.”

The new law makes available grants to fund peer mentoring programs. It also requires that the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services develop tools for mental health providers, so they can better understand law enforcement, “a culture of its own with challenges of its own,” Donnelly said.

The law provides opportunities for access to evidence-based therapies that may be most beneficial to officers, and calls for the study of the effectiveness of crisis hotlines. It also requires annual mental health wellness checks for police.

The legislation builds off work the senator already supported regarding military service members. The bipartisan Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, which originated in the U.S. Congress and was passed in 2014, requires annual mental heal checkups for all military personnel.

Extending the mental health evaluations to law enforcement is just as necessary, Donnelly said.

“It was a team effort," Donnelly said of the legislative effort that resulted in the law. "It wasn't Democrats or Republicans — it was Hoosiers coming together to try to make it so that these men and women who protect us every day know that we have their back. And we're doing everything we can to make sure they have all the resources they need.”

Chief Bailey said in his more than 26 years in law enforcement, he's seen and experienced a lot of the challenges that are common to officers — graphic and fatal car accidents and crimes scenes. He's even had people try more than once to hurt or kill him.

But it's not rare, especially for an officer who's been in the field a while.

“Almost every police officer you talk to will have that experience or a similar story,” Bailey said.

Situations involving an officer-involved shooting, he said, are very traumatic.

“If you are unfortunate to have been ... in an officer-involved shooting, your life was in danger,” Bailey said. “And you have to within your own mind reconcile what exactly just happened.”

That means the officer has to process not only that they were in danger to the point where they had to use deadly force, but also reconcile the act of actually doing it.

He called the peer mentoring part of the new law a great asset, and one that can directly affect officers in the department. The law provides funding for training mentors in how to assist their colleagues, and how to recognize when help is needed beyond their capabilities.

“It's so much easier for an officer to talk to a colleague than it is some stranger,” he said. “Even if that stranger is a health care professional.”

Deaton, speaking on behalf of the Indiana FOP, said the organization has a focus on addressing the rising number of officers affected by post traumatic stress disorder and police suicides, and this law will support that effort and increase awareness.

“One of the the top priorities of the FOP has been the psychological health [of officers] as they continue to serve and protect the citizens of their communities,” he said. “This legislation will assist in that mission.”

The law, Donnelly said, is a step in protecting those who protect the communities.

“They work so hard and so long on a constant basis to protect us and to keep us safe,” he said of police. “It's an extraordinarily difficult job and we should never forget that the men and women behind the badge are moms and dads, sisters and brothers.”

WHAS Louisville: New mental health services for Ind. officers (February 2018) 

LOUISVILLE (WHAS11) -- More funding is on the way to help law enforcement officers manage the stress and trauma they experience on the beat every day.

Legislation signed in January by President Trump means police departments like New Albany's will see new funding for counselors and mental health services, as well as crisis hotlines to combat suicide rates.

Much of these practices are used in the military, which U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly realized could be adopted for police. He co-sponsored the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act alongside U.S. Senator Todd Young.

Local police applauded their work.

"The FOP prioritizes the need to address the staggering number of officers affected by PTSD and police suicide. Two issues that have been unspoken and untreated for far too long,” Toby Deaton, the Indiana FOP vice president, said.

"These men and women who protect us every day know that we have their back and we're doing everything we can to make sure they have the resources they need,” Donnelly said.

The legislation was inspired by wellness and peer mentoring programs in Indianapolis, which officers here locally also hope to incorporate in their daily routines.

Lafayette Journal & Courier: New law helps police officers cope with the stress of their jobs (February 2018)

By: Ron Wilkins

LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Most people go to work knowing they'll be home by 6 o'clock, but that doesn't hold true for police officers.

Compounding things are the situations police officers endure during their shifts.

"There is nothing that can make the pain of holding a child dying in your arms go away," said West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis, who retired from Lafayette Police Department when he became mayor in 2007.

But now there are resources available to help cope with that pain.

Dennis and Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski, who also retired from LPD after being elected in 2003, recalled Tuesday morning how they dealt with the stress of their careers during a news conference announcing the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act. 

President Donald Trump signed the bill on Jan. 10, which will provide resources for peer mentoring groups, as well as programs for officers to receive help coping with the horrors police officers see too often.

The bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Indiana Sens. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat, and Todd Young, a Republican.

Roswarski recalled his career and those he worked with on the department during the news conference.

“Over time, all those small things and big things pile up," Roswarski said. “Earlier we just kind of dealt with them, or we pushed them down. Or maybe we talked in the locker room or maybe we went out a little bit afterwards. But we didn’t really deal with them.”

“Law enforcement has seen the effects of that as we’ve lost officers to suicide or alcoholism or they have made choices … that have cost them their career because we didn’t adequately deal with the stress early on,” Roswarski said.

“It’s not always easy for them to leave their work behind when they head home," Donnelly said at the opening of the news conference. "The experiences stay with them."

Dennis didn't give specifics from his career but said, “It’s something you take with you for the rest of your life.”

Often, however, seeking mental health is often shunned by police officers.

“The next challenge is going to be for us — as a group — to get over the stigma for those that need help,” Dennis said.

Lafayette Police Chief Patrick Flannelly, West Lafayette Police Chief Jason Dombkowski and Indiana Fraternal Order of Police Vice President Toby Deaton also addressed the topic during the press conference.

Flannelly and Dombkowski both noted that the local police departments have mental health assets available for police officers experiencing stress.

Flannelly cited statistics about how police officers suffer higher suicide rates, heart disease and other illnesses when compared to the general population.

“The physical and emotional stress and trauma are significantly impacting the quality of life for our officers," Flannelly said. "In turn, that also impacts the quality of life for our families.

"The good news is that we know that they’re preventable."

Post-Tribune: Sen. Donnelly touts programs that give police mental health support (February 2018)

Suicide Hotline 

WLFI: Sen. Donnelly advocates 3-digit suicide hotline (August 2018)

By: Demie Johnson

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WLFI) — Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly is working to lower the number of suicides across the state and country.

The National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act was recently signed into law.

Senator Donnelly first introduced the Senate version of this bipartisan bill with Republican Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah in May 2017.

The goal is increase the effectiveness of the current suicide prevention lifeline system.

Donnelly said Congress is working on an easy to remember 3-digit suicide hotline number to better connect those in crisis.

"Many of the primary groups that are struggling with this challenge are teenagers, are veterans and so they would benefit from having a 3-digit number in place that is easy to call and that on the other end of the line is somebody who can talk to them about their challenges," said Donnelly. 

Senator Donnelly has also worked on legislation to help law enforcement agencies establish or enhance mental health services for officers.

NUVO: Donnelly’s Suicide Hotline Study Approved (August 2018)

By: Statehouse File

President Donald Trump signed a measure this week to improve suicide prevention hotline resources, as outlined in a bipartisan bill spearheaded by Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana. 

The National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act was introduced by Donnelly this year with help from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Now law, it will require the Federal Communications Commission to study various suicide prevention hotlines, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Veterans Crisis Line, and provide recommendations for further action to Congress. 

One such recommendation, campaign officials for Donnelly outlined a in a press release, could be to limit the number of digits in a hotline number to three, similar to the emergency service number 911. The hope is that an easy-to-remember number would encourage more of those in need to reach out to certified professionals. 

The FCC will work on the study with the nation’s assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse — currently Elinore McCance-Katz — and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie. 

The National Center for Health Statistics reports that over 44,000 Americans die by suicide each year. Veterans suicides occur more often than in other demographics, according to studies conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs.  

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline was established in 2005. It now operates 160 crisis centers, where operators answer millions of calls each year. The organization also communicates with those in need via online chat rooms.  

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to be connected with a crisis responder. A Spanish Language line is available at 1-888-628-9454. Each service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at no charge.