Experts: Plan to institute military oath against suicide could backfire


Rep. Brian Mast, (R-FL), who took office this January, is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan lost both of his legs in 2010 from a roadside bomb, championed the “Oath of Exit” on the House floor last month because servicemembers are known for honoring their commitments – and if they commit to contacting fellow veterans before harming themselves, they’d do it.

The Oath of Exit as included in the House’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act:

“I, ________, recognizing that my oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, has involved me and my fellow members in experiences that few persons, other than our peers, can understand, do solemnly swear (or affirm) to continue to be the keeper of my brothers- and sisters-in-arms and protector of the United States and the Constitution; to preserve the values I have learned; to maintain my body and my mind; and to not bring harm to myself without speaking to my fellow veterans first. I take this oath freely and without purpose of evasion, so help me God.”

But though it’s well-intentioned, the oath – essentially a no-suicide contract – is an outdated notion proven not to work, and it could even backfire, some experts say.

Craig Bryan
, a psychologist and executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah, says, “At best, it would be a neutral effect, but it could make things worse.” When struggling with suicidal thoughts, veterans who sign the commitment could feel an increased sense of shame and guilt, he added.

Caitlin Thompson, the former director of suicide prevention programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs and now a vice president of Cohen Veterans Network agrees, stating that experts in suicide prevention have been discouraging these types of contracts for the past 10 years:

“It isn’t just that it didn’t work — it actually had the opposite effect. It made it so that the person who signed it wouldn’t talk with their provider about feeling suicidal because of this fear of, ‘I signed this promise.’”

The oath was included in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that passed the House on July 14. Senators are on recess for the next few weeks but are expected to take up work on the NDAA after they return Sept. 5.

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