Waging war against suicide
February 10, 2010
- Soldiers are taking advantage of the suicide prevention resources available at Heidelberg Medical Activity
- The job of the mental health professional is one that requires an extensive level of commitment, patience and compassion
HEIDELBERG, Germany - Seeing images of ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan flashing across television screens, and on the Internet has become a daily occurrence for most of us.
These images serve as constant reminders of the enemy that U.S. forces face every day.
However, there's another enemy lurking a lot closer to home. It's one targeting service members of every rank, from every unit, and from every background. As a result, Army officials across the service have launched a full assault to prevent it from taking another life.
Col. Rebecca Tomsyck, Chief of the Department of Behavioral Health at Heidelberg Medical Activity, and Lt. Col. Nathan Huck, officer in charge of the psychological assessment service at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center's Division of Behavioral Health, are serving on the front lines of the suicide fight.
Together, the two mental health professionals have over three decades of experience in the mental health field and they are just two of the many, lending their fire power to the Army's suicide prevention efforts.
Tomsyck and her staff in Heidelberg have been busy helping patients struggling with suicidal thoughts and other mental health issues. She says that at her facility, Soldiers are taking advantage of the suicide prevention resources available - some voluntarily and some not.
"It's never easy let me say that," Tomsyck explained. "Some patients come willingly, some don't come willingly, and when you're eminently suicidal by definition, your judgment is impaired. So it's often difficult to make that connection right away. But as a patient gets better they look back and they say 'oh my gosh, I had no idea I was that bad.'"
Elsewhere, Huck and his staff at LRMC are ensuring that patients there also receive the help they need to get well and get back to their normal day to day lives. Huck's job is to help with cases that need a more in-depth look or diagnostic work-up. Afterwards the individual is transferred back to another provider for treatment.
"The main role that I would play is assisting when cases are a little more complex. ... I would say my service here like any other service is one cog in the larger machine to address the issue of suicide prevention. We feel it's going well. It's an overall effort by many different components," Huck said.
Mental health professionals like Huck and Tomsyck know and understand that the fight they face against preventing suicide is not a simple one.
"Folks, especially those who may be critical of the behavioral health system in the military because of higher suicide rates, should realize that this really is a multi-factorial problem and a big part of it is simply the amount of strain on the force, on the service members," Huck said.
"You can look at a lot of different things. We have a population base here that is primarily young males who we know from different graphic studies are the most likely to commit suicide in or out of the Army. We have a very high op- tempo which even the sergeant major of the Army has come right out, and said is the biggest single factor contributing to this," he added.
Huck also cited family separations, pre-existing problems and relationship issues as factors affecting the alarming suicide trends seen across the Army.
In the midst of ongoing suicide prevention efforts, another issue still plaguing Army officials and mental health professionals across the board is the negative social stigma attached to suicide.
"It leaves a family with a terrible legacy, feelings of guilt, what did I miss and what could I have done differently or what could I have done better," Tomsyck said. "So there's an element of shame involved I think from the family's perspective. It's a horrific event for someone to take their own life so it stirs up all sorts of emotions in everyone."
For military members the stress can be further compounded. Many fear reprisal or discrimination from their peers or damaging their careers by seeking mental health services.
This is one of the most common misconceptions mental health professionals say they see in the ranks.
"We're all trained to be warriors. Tough. Rely on yourself, take care of your buddies," Tomsyck said.
"So when that occurs I think that there's an implied element of obviously trouble. Perhaps weakness, confusion, inability. I think another (reason) is that the patient doesn't know what to do about it. They're sort of lost. We're Soldiers. We're trained to get out there and do it and get things going. We're not trained to be lost."
Huck believes that counteracting this stigma among military members on the most basic level is critical to making any real sustainable progress in suicide prevention efforts.
"Continue to battle stigma, it really can happen most effectively at a unit level," he said. "We as the mental health types can rant and rave about reducing stigma all we want, but it really has to come down to the unit levels, the line units to start to battle this and say, look it's okay to get help. We're not gonna think you're weak or you're less than because you've gone to get help," Huck said.
Often under reported in the crush of statistics, released on suicides among service members, are the countless numbers of spouses, children, family members and friends left devastated in the aftermath. Yet there are some simple things that spouses, friends and co-workers can do to help their loved ones.
"You can notify your primary care physician, you can notify the chaplain, you can notify an FRG leader, anyone that you see as authoritarian and supportive," Tomsyck said.
"Don't ever think that you are alone, whether you're the patient or whether you are the family member, because you are not. You know, it may be as simple as going next door in the stairwell and knocking on your neighbor's door. You can also call us at any mental health clinic. Most mental health clinics have an emergency system in place," he said.
The job of the mental health professional is one that requires an extensive level of commitment, patience and compassion. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions for the patients that will walk through their doors but for Tomsyck, Huck, and others like them serving on the front lines of this fight, they know that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel, and their job is to help their patients, see it too.
"We're here to help. We're here to assist. There is an entire team in this system available to help. That's what our job is. Allow us to help," Huck said.
"Most of these things don't happen without no one knowing about them," Huck said. "So if you see someone is in trouble or you're experiencing difficulties yourself, come on in and get help from us. That's what we're here to do."