Tucked into the $1.1 trillion spending package just approved by Congress is a little-noticed provision for a study into connections between financial stress and the military suicide epidemic – legislation advocates believe represents a vital step forward in achieving more effective financial planning interventions for soldiers and veterans.
Prompted by a Financial Planning investigation, the measure sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) directs the Pentagon to analyze financial stress as a main precipitating factor to military suicide; other leading factors are mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder, marital problems and substance abuse.
"This may be exactly what's needed to jumpstart attention to this issue," says former U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, an M.D. who spoke out in support of the bill. "It may trigger more attention to get people to start recognizing that they need to take care of this issue for their soldiers and veterans."
VALIDATION OF THE PROBLEM
"The optimal outcome would be to validate that financial stress is a major part of the problem, and then to fund the Department of Defense with the right resources to address it," adds Dick Power, who heads up through the Financial Planning Association in Massachusetts what may be the country's most successful pro bono planning initiative to help soldiers.
President Obama is expected to sign the massive spending bill that includes the military suicide study in coming days.
Praise for the bill’s passage was muted by the fact that any impact from the study probably won't be felt for years, while thousands more service members and veterans take their own lives. Over the next two years while the study is prepped and underway, at least 16,000 soldiers and veterans are likely to kill themselves.
One academic who says he would be interested in working on the Pentagon study is Craig Bryan, a psychiatrist and executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah.
Bryan and his colleagues recently completed a five-year study into a 12-session cognitive behavioral therapy program for service members that, he says, reduced the risk of suicide among Army soldiers by 60%. The program has a strong financial component that helps soldiers do better budgeting and teaches them, for example, to borrow money from friends and family instead of payday lenders, some of whom charge usurious interest on their loans.
"We found in the patients we were treating that financial problems were often associated with suicidal crises," Bryan says.
SUICIDAL ABSENT COMBAT
While most Americans believe the military suicide epidemic is driven mainly by lingering combat trauma, Financial Planning’s investigation found that more than 80% of suicides were among soldiers who did not see combat – and more than half of the suicides in 2012 were among soldiers who never even deployed.
In addition, the survivors of all active-duty soldiers who die are eligible for government-paid, $500,000 life insurance payments and other death benefits, perhaps creating an inadvertent incentive. Also, under military policy, financial planners who work for the military and who step up to help soldiers and veterans in financial crisis beyond rudimentary assistance run the risk of being fired for going beyond the scope of their contracts.
For the Pentagon study to be a success, researchers "need to get into the trenches and talk to people" like military planners who work day-in, day-out with soldiers and veterans – many of whom have high debt, says Jan Chapman of Annapolis, Md., the planner featured in the Financial Planning investigation.
SOLDIER IN DIRE STRAITS
In 2010, sensing Army Sgt. Angelo Stevens was contemplating suicide, which would have allowed his family and two ailing children to receive $500,000 in death benefits, Chapman approached him and offered to help him find a way forward.
Chapman helped him reduce his high debts, which he credits with saving his life. Recently, amid his continuing financial difficulties, she launched a crowdfunding site to try to help the family pay to move to a new home, and for medical expenses and Christmas presents, following Stevens' reduction in work hours this year.
“The biggest problem” in helping soldiers and veterans coping with significant financial troubles, Stevens says, is the military “wants to help but has no clue, really, how to do it because they really aren't talking to us. They are talking at us.”
The Pentagon would not comment on the criticism raised by Stevens and others.
A serious flaw in the military's existing financial planning programs, Bryan says, is that it’s unknown how well they work because no study has reviewed their effectiveness. Holt's outline for the study calls for "evidence-based" tools to improve outcomes.
The Financial Planning investigation discovered that the overwhelming majority of meetings between financial planners and troops last only 15 minutes. In addition, some of the military's financial planners make a habit of delivering shaming lectures to soldiers in debt – for example, saying that they are setting a bad example for others – which can worsen their despair, according to planners interviewed.
Any delay in providing additional resources to better protect America’s troops from self-inflicted harm “is unconscionable,” says Omega Hartman, chairwoman of the FPA's pro bono advisory committee. She lobbied for passage of the suicide prevention legislation on the Hill along with dozens more FPA members over the summer. The $1 million cost of the study "is like pocket change in terms of the Department of Defense's budget," she says. "When are the service members going to get the help they deserve?"
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