DoD-contracted psychologist suggests taking away servicemembers’ guns in response to mental health report

Kimberly Hepner, a senior behavioral scientist and a licensed clinical psychologist at the RAND Corporation, suggested removing firearms to reduce military suicides. (RAND Corporation photo)

In light of a recent study concerning the poor standard of mental health care in the military, firearms may be back in the sights of military policy makers as a scapegoat for substandard mental health treatment in troops with depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A RAND corporation study of over 39,000 service members found that just around 30 percent of the surveyees diagnosed with depression and fifty-four percent diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are getting the care they need after being identified as a high-risk for suicide.

The study was sourced by USA Today and Military Times, which both featured an interview with Kimberly Hepner, a senior behavioral scientist and a licensed clinical psychologist at the RAND Corporation.

“The most immediate action -removal of firearms- can help to reduce risk of suicide attempts,” said Hepner.

Interestingly, the study itself made zero mention of firearms, nor did the original USA Today article sourced by Military Times. However, Makenzie Wolf, an editorial intern at Military Times deemed it necessary to base the title of her article on Hepner’s single quote, eventually penning her article “Taking away troops’ guns would reduce suicides, study finds.”

While it is true that the majority of active duty suicides are committed with firearms (a statistic that mirrors the #1 reason for firearms-related deaths in the United States), the original article -and the one sourcing it- was rather vague on what was meant by “removal of firearms,” i.e., a service weapon versus a privately-owned weapon.

The data presented suggests a correlation between guns and veteran suicide, but it does not compare the data to data from an environment without guns.  How does one propose firearm removal as a solution when there is no data to suggest that veterans would commit suicide at a lower rate without firearms?  The data only states that veterans are more likely to use firearms for suicide.

The RAND corporate website confirms Hepner’s involvement in the study, but makes no mention of firearms or their removal as a recommendation based on the report’s findings.

The practice of removing firearms from service members -or at the very least, the threat of losing one’s right to bear arms- has long been a controversial spectre for servicemembers, especially when subjected to bureaucratic systems (military and veteran health care) that handle such matters in an arbitrary and often impersonal manner.

“These can be quite difficult conversations to have with service members,” Hepner said.  “Certainly limiting access to their service weapon would involve notifying their command.”

While it can be assumed that the aforementioned intent would translate to seizing a high-risk active duty service member’s issued weapon -and even personal weapons- for a limited time, the very notion of a service member being stripped of arms has traditionally been enough to keep many from seeking out health in the first place.

One such service member -who wished to remain anonymous due to her current occupation- said she confessed to having PTSD-like symptoms and was transferred to a Warrior Transition Battalion, where she was barred by medical professionals (and her command) from even being near a firearm.

“I was the best marksman in my unit,” she said. “My dad is a police officer, I grew up shooting. I finally had a chance to heal and utilize my passions- and they took that away from me.”

The now-medically retired service member asserts that she told healthcare workers that she was depressed, leading them to assume she was suicidal. Placed in the WTB, she was prescribed medication but no treatment.

Other service members and veterans claim that arbitrary disarmament processes -combined with the “fast-and-loose” method in which medication is issued- only leads to enhancing the stigma behind such disorders and discourages many service members -many of them passionate firearms owners- from talking about their issues.

Jason Wyman, an Army veteran and CEO of the non-profit Operation Brotherhood -whose goal is to eliminate veteran suicide- says that such matters should be handled more delicately.

“Those who fought for their constitutional rights should not be unreasonably stripped of them,” Wyman said in an interview with Popular Military.

Verily, one of the other major issues addressed in the RAND study was that of healthcare providers issuing benzodiazepines to one out of three service members surveyed, a drug that can interfere with appropriate treatment, negatively mix with alcohol and are highly addictive.

Even Hepner admitted that it is easier for providers to push drugs than to get a patient set up with proper treatment.

“It is at times easier and more immediate to provide a prescription for benzodiazepine versus helping getting into effective psychotherapy,” Hepner said.

The Pentagon responded to USA Today, claiming that the RAND reports will not go unnoticed.

“The report findings and recommendations are being reviewed and will be used to shape our future direction to ensure we are improving patient care,” Laura Ochoa, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said on Sunday. “We remain committed to providing the best quality mental health care to our patients. We will also continue to make the necessary adjustments and improvements to help those afflicted fully recover.‎”

As complicated as the situation is, however, not all seems lost. While the current level of mental health care seems inadequate, Hepner has noticed some improvement when it comes to treating depression and PTSD.

“We’re seeing some movement in a positive direction,” she said. “But we believe that behavioral health care needs more attention.”

Until then, it seems, the subject of getting mental health treatment to those who need it most may just be a juggling act of luck, medication, Constitutional rights and careful discretion on the part of service members.

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