by Teresa Rosales

Mental health disorders in active-duty servicemembers have increased 65 percent since 2000, according to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center. While federal agencies have dedicated more resources to screen and treat combat troops in recent years, incidents such as the U.S. Army sergeant allegedly murdering 16 civilians in Afghanistan raise serious questions if it is enough.

USC School of Social Work student Sarah Duncan doesn’t think so.

The South Carolina resident, who’s earning her master’s degree through the school’s Virtual Academic Center, believes active-duty soldiers need more extensive psychological screening and care for their mental health problems than what they currently receive. She even spent a semester trying to convince Congress.

As part of a social policy class assignment, Duncan chose to advocate on behalf of the Service Members Mental Health Screening Act, a bill calling for better mental health assessments of soldiers in the military. The proposed legislation—H.R. 1942—stipulates a face-to-face mental health assessment for members of the armed forces before, during and after deployment, and again annually for the next three years following the redeployment date to identify post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, suicidal tendencies and other behavioral health concerns. At-risk servicemembers would then be referred for appropriate medical treatment.

“This piece of legislation seemed to be the best fit for what I’m trying to learn. It seemed like the best way for me to better understand the status quo, and what is and isn’t working,” said Duncan, who has several family members who are veterans.

She first reached out to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Andre Carson, whose team remained in regular contact with her, explaining the steps leading to passage of the legislation and providing information on the status of the bill.

Duncan, who is studying mental health and military social work, spent a couple of hours each week contacting organizations, including the National Association of Social Workers and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and other state representatives to gain more advocates for the bill.

“My goal was to make others see the importance of the bill,” she said. “I am just one voice added to the many, many more that helped generate interest in the need to have this type of legislation passed.”

Duncan acknowledged, however, that her task was not always easy. Of her three state representatives in South Carolina, Duncan reached only a legislative representative for one.

“That was disheartening to say the least,” she said.

In addition to learning about actual military-related legislation, Duncan said she gained a better understanding of the political process that accompanies it.

“Representatives should be held accountable for their actions and truly be representing their constituency,” she said.

Despite a lack of backing from her state representatives, Duncan helped create a groundswell of support and momentum for the cause. Though the actual bill did not progress in its original form, it was proposed as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, and President Barack Obama signed parts of the amendment.

The signing meant two big wins for the military. First, all mental health screenings will take into account all past health records from previous deployments. Also, the entire mental health screening process is now codified into permanent law.

“Most of the time it is difficult to see the efforts of an advocacy effort materialize in the form of enacted legislation – let alone have it take place in the approximate time span of a semester,” said Adjunct Professor Tom Peterson, Duncan’s instructor. “This project opened my eyes to the pressing need for increased resources to care for the mental health and well-being of our service members. It obviously had the same effect on members of Congress.”

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