Gov. Laura Kelly signed a bill into law Wednesday that shields the identity of Kansas National Guard members who participate in counseling sessions.
The legislation, which passed the House and Senate with nearly unanimous approval, is an effort to encourage more service members to seek peer support. Notes and records will be exempt from open records requests and court proceedings.
"It's important that we do all we can to decrease the stigma around mental illness and encourage guardsmen and women to seek the necessary help," Kelly said. "It's another way to make sure Kansans get the health care and mental health services they need."
The effort to address mental health follows turmoil at the Kansas Guard over a series of suicides. A captain resigned over concerns that leadership wasn't taking the issue seriously.
The Kansas Guard has recorded three suicide deaths in the past 18 months and nine in the past five years.
Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli said he is trying to find best practices from other states, and the legislation signed by Kelly provides another tool in a wide array of services available to soldiers.
"You have to be willing to come forward and say you need some help," Tafanelli said, "because we have a lot of programs if you're willing to get into those programs and get some assistance."
Part of the strategy in addressing mental health needs, Tafanelli said, is understanding the underlying causes of suicide. In nearly every case, he said, there is a relationship issue, substance abuse and financial concern.
Still, Tafanelli said, he hears a lot of people say, "Well, my situation is different."
"They reach a point of despair in their mind that their situation is different, and that's the hardest thing for us to come to grips with," Tafanelli said.
Kelly also signed a bill that makes it easier for Kansas Guard members to receive educational assistance.