Army Suicide Prevention Month: Fighting an unseen enemy
September 28, 2009
FORT MCPHERSON, Ga. - One look at the Army's current suicide rates makes it clear that Suicide Prevention Month could not fall at a more appropriate time: in the past seven months there have already been more reported active duty suicides than during the same period in 2008.
Released Sept. 10, the Army's statistics show 11 potential active duty suicides for the month of August, bringing the tally up to 110 since January.
"Everybody wants to know why Soldiers are killing themselves," said Bobby Norton, program manager for the suicide prevention program at U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM). "The Army is weary after more than seven years of combat. It's probably a combination of factors; two contingency operations, multiple deployments, high stress, relationship struggles, substance abuse ... like a perfect storm."
With the added stressors of combat, Army suicide rates have been record-breaking for the past three years and show no signs of slowing down unless something changes.
"Suicide has had such a devastating impact on Soldiers and their families," said Chaplain (Col) Bradford Fipps, FORSCOM staff chaplain. "To set a month aside, I think it's important to let everyone know it affects all of us."
While multiple deployments are a factor in the increase in suicides, 2008 Army statistics show that one-third of Soldiers who commit suicide have never deployed. Fipps explained that the most common denominator in Army suicides is actually failed relationships.
He said that when a Soldier doesn't have a support system at home, or when that support system reaches a breaking point, deployed Soldiers may not feel they can go on in an already difficult environment.
"The effects of persistent conflict have been a major contribution to the number of suicides ... the problem is you accumulate stress," said Fipps. "When things aren't going well at home, you really have nowhere to go."
He added that when he speaks with Soldiers, family or close relationships are often what they name as the most meaningful aspect of their life. Why' Because trust, support, safety and strength are found inside close personal relationships, which nurture the emotional fortitude needed to push through a difficult situation like war.
Fipps said that when families go through multiple deployments, they experience anticipatory grief-a defense mechanism that protects the individual from anticipated pain to come. With anticipatory grief both the person leaving and those staying behind pull away from each other and become distant so that the separation won't be as painful.
The problem with anticipatory grief, Fipps said, is when family members start building walls to protect their emotions, it is more difficult to communicate, and that's when relationships often fall apart.
"If we don't feel that our lives have meaning, then we can be more susceptible to suicide," he said.
Fipps also said the majority of suicides in the Army are found in 17-30 year-old men, the majority of whom are combat arms Soldiers. He said that often younger people see no way out of fixable situations or minor setbacks, which at the time may seem overwhelming. Army statistics are the opposite of civilian statistics, where older people are more likely to commit suicide.
Fipps explained that the way to combat suicides in the Army is to train Soldiers and their families to look for the warning signs, reduce the lingering stigma for getting emotional or mental help in the Army, train Soldiers to be resilient, and be a good battle buddy to your fellow Soldier.
"Soldiers need to get to know one another and develop friendships so they can notice a change in behavior, should it occur," Fipps said. "Soldiers need friends to hold them accountable."
An example of a Soldier using his training to help prevent suicide is Spc. Luke Hendricks, a Chaplain's assistant at FORSCOM.
Even though helping Soldiers is part of his daily routine, the McDonough, Ga., native said his most notable experience with intervening in a possible suicide attempt was not with a Soldier-it was with a civilian.
"I always felt it was better to ask if someone needed help than to not," Hendricks said.
Using his training as the gatekeeper for Chaplains, when talking to an old friend from high school, Hendricks became worried at the way she was describing her feelings. His friend was going through a divorce and battling a bout of depression, and he decided to ask a tough question-if she was considering hurting herself.
"We talked, and in talking, I felt concerned about her will to live," Hendricks explained.
His friend said that although she hadn't made any actual plans to do so, she had considered hurting herself. That's when Hendricks leaned on his newly-learned (ASIST) Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (a suicide intervention model), and reminded his friend of all of the good things in her life she still had to live for.
Hendricks said his friend did not attempt suicide, and he likes to think it's because he asked some tough and potentially embarrassing questions. He also said that now he's more confident he would do the same again in a similar situation.
As a Chaplain's assistant, Hendricks said one of the most important aspects of counseling someone is following-up and making sure that person is still okay.
Another example of a Soldier using his suicide prevention training is Sgt. John Huggins, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, who was instrumental in saving another Soldier on Fort Stewart in April.
While on staff duty for a barracks building, Huggins was notified that a suicide attempt was in progress. Huggins ran outside and saw that another Soldier was attempting to hang himself out of a second story barracks window.
Huggins called the Military Police for help and hailed a vehicle with a ladder on it, climbing up to reach the Soldier. While Huggins was climbing the ladder, the MPs arrived, scaring the Soldier, who retreated back into his room. Huggins followed inside and found the Soldier in his bathroom attempting to cut his arm with a pair of scissors.
Huggins ordered the Soldier to stop, but when he refused, Huggins tried to disarm him and pinned him to the floor. The report states that Huggins, who received three staples in his scalp after the struggle, refused medical treatment until the other Soldier was treated by the paramedics.
Huggins was awarded the Soldier's Medal for his bravery September 15 in front of 2,700 Soldiers from the Vanguard Brigade.
"It was instincts, really," Huggins said in a Tampa Tribune interview. "I saw the situation and it played out in my head what I needed to do, and I did it. The guy is alive. He has another chance to do something. That was enough for me."
The Army's Vice Chief of Staff, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, says that effective suicide prevention programs and resources are a crucial part of the suicide prevention effort, and also stresses the importance of small-unit leadership.
"There will never be a substitute for noncommissioned officers who know their Soldiers, know when a Soldier is suffering, and have the moral courage to act and get that Soldier the help that they need," Chiarelli said.
Leadership and training is just what Chiarelli is focusing on this year, and has implemented a mandatory three-part training series on suicide prevention featuring interactive videos.
Norton agrees that for some Soldiers, the increase of training might seem excessive, but he believes it is the Army's best line of defense for combating the rising rates.
"It's a constant barrage of information ... but I think it's important to have that awareness. It keeps it in the forefront," Norton said.
The new training combined with the Army's No Soldier Stands Alone campaign aims to eliminate suicide as an option for Soldiers, and encourages Soldiers to befriend and help each other-and to act should the situation arise.
"A lot of people think training doesn't help ... but that's a metric you can't put your finger on," Norton said. "You'll just never know how many suicides good training prevented."
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Veterans may press 1 when connected.