Army Dedicates Month To Suicide Prevention
September 10, 2010
- This week is recognized as Suicide Prevention Week, with the entire month of September set aside for prevention education.
- "There are many people whose lives have been saved...The message is out there about prevention. There is still a need to take it seriously."
- A lot of Soldiers dealing with the pains of deployment find they are thinking about suicide when they never have before."
- "In the words of Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff, Army, 'these are not just statistics; they are our Soldiers and civilians."
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- It was the word "divorce" that sent Spc. Joseph Sanders' mind to a dark place, and the quick thinking of his battle buddy Spc. Albert Godding that brought him back from the edge.
Deployed in Iraq, Sanders received news that his wife, the woman who the very thought of helped him through a deployment, wanted a divorce. Devastated by the news, after one too many painful six-hour shifts on guard thinking about his failed marriage, Sanders took his rifle, held it to his chin, put it on semi and pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened. Godding had taken his firing pin.
The story of Godding and Sanders is proof of the need to take suicide prevention seriously, and a tale the Army would like to be told more. The duo are featured in this year's Armywide suicide prevention video, "Shoulder to Shoulder: I Will Never Quit on Life." Nationally, this week is recognized as Suicide Prevention Week, with the entire month of September set aside for prevention education.
"There are many people whose lives have been saved by those measures," said Dr. David Ferguson with the behavioral medicine department at Fox Army Health Center. "The message is out there about prevention. There is still a need to take it seriously."
This month, and all yearlong, Redstone Arsenal is calling attention to the measures everyone can take to prevent the 11th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Listening to Godding explain why he did what he did in the Army video is only one piece of a very large suicide prevention puzzle.
"Even the most severely depressed person has mixed feelings about death, and most waver until the very last moment between wanting to live and wanting to die," Skip Johnson, prevention and education coordinator for the Army Substance Abuse Program, said of the importance of preventive measures. "Most suicidal people do not want to die; they want the pain to stop. The impulse to end it all, however overpowering, does not last forever. Suicide is a real problem with irreversible consequences. You just cannot take it back once it is done."
More than 34,000 people committed suicide in 2007, according to the CDC, and for every one of those, 25 other individuals attempted to take their own life but failed.
Approximately 450 Soldiers died at their own hands between fiscal 2006 and 2009, accounting for roughly 43 percent of non-combat Soldier deaths during that time period, according to the 2010 Army Health Promotion Risk Reduction Suicide Prevention report. Even more alarming, that rate doubled in those years, beginning with 82 suicides in 2006 and ending with 160 in 2009.
"The Army is often a high stress environment," Ferguson said. "The link between the increasing deployments is a pretty clear link. A lot of Soldiers dealing with the pains of deployment find they are thinking about suicide when they never have before."
From January to June 2010, the Army has had 145 active duty suicides, ahead of pace from last year, according to Tony Arcuri, Well-being Plans and Operations Division Chief, headquarters Army Materiel Command, G-1, unfortunate proof that the suicide rate is not decreasing. Carrying the burden of ground combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has contributed to the Army's increase in suicides over the past several years, according to the Army's report, and while the combat mission has ended in Iraq, the fight continues in Afghanistan, perpetuating Soldiers susceptibility. For Soldiers overseas, and those at home waging their own personal wars whether it be with PTSD, financial, relationship or other stressors, suicide prevention is a battle the Army must continue to fight.
"We can't talk about suicide in terms of statistics and demographics alone," said Kevin Besser, Suicide Prevention and Substance Abuse program manager for headquarters AMC Wellness division. "In the words of Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff, Army, 'these are not just statistics; they are our Soldiers and civilians."
Soldier state of mind
Soldiers have now become a group of men and women that have not just seen one deployment, but for many, multiple. Deployments and other unit transitions, such as predeployment, redeployment and reintegration, accumulate stress on a Soldier and his family, according to the Army report, and it can take 24 to 36 months for behavioral health well-being to return to normal. Soldiers that don't get that downtime may experience heightened stress.
"War is a horrible thing," said Dr. Victoria Serbia, chief, adult psychiatry, for the behavioral medicine department at Fox Army Health Center. "Being terrified for a long period of time, even if you're not holding a gun, will affect a person."
Going from Soldier mode to civilian mode is not as simple as flipping a switch, Serbia said, and requires a period of transition for both the Soldier and their families when they return home.
"When you come back from the battlefront you come back hyper aroused," Serbia said. "Your mind is still in battle."
As a result, Soldiers returning from deployment may be irritable, anxious, have problems sleeping or experience nightmares, among other problems, she said. Some may feel a sense of isolation from being surrounded by people that can't begin to fathom what they have experienced.
"It's fixable," Serbia said. "But it's a difficult, difficult transition. You don't just come home and come home. Soldiers think if they don't talk about what they're feeling then they can go to business as usual, but that's never the case. It's kind of like putting a Band-aid on an ulcer."
As a result, many turn to the bottle, Serbia said. In 2009, approximately 13 percent of suicides involved drugs and/or alcohol, according to the Army report.
"Most people don't want to hurt themselves," Serbia said. "It's human nature to prevent pain, but if you're drinking you somehow forget."
Deployments are not entirely to blame for Soldier suicides however. According to the 2009 Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine Report, 36 percent of Soldiers that committed suicide had never deployed, and 43 percent had only deployed once. Resiliency in young Soldiers is also of concern. Of the 120 active duty suicides in fiscal 2010 through June 30, 71 were Soldiers in their first five years of service, accounting for the majority of the Army's suicides. In addition to the stressors of military life, Soldiers also face issues that affect the general population, such as financial hardship, relationship problems or grief.
"Every suicide is as different and as unique as the people themselves," Chiarelli said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in July 2009. "And the reality is there is no one reason a person decides to commit suicide. That decision reflects a complex combination of factors and events."
Suicide in the Army isn't just about Soldiers - it's civilians, too. In response to the Army 2009 suicide data, Army Materiel Command created its own wellness division to meet the wellness needs of its organization, both Soldier and civilian. Since December 2008, AMC has lost 13 individuals to suicide, 12 of whom were civilians.
"At AMC, the stress is real," Arcuri said. "Since the two wars started, nearly 50 percent of all deployed Department of Defense employees have come from AMC. Since there is no established front, our deployed civilians face many of the same dangers as our Soldiers."
In addition to the stress of deployment, between 11,000 and 12,000 AMC employees and their families are affected by base realignment and closure.
"How much harder is it for a family of civilians who are BRAC'd'" Arcuri said. "It's much harder for a civilian family to be expected to do what Soldiers do every two years. They didn't join the Army to see the world. They joined because they want to serve and the Army is a great place to work. All of a sudden they find they're moving to Alabama, or some other part of the country."
The new wellness division will focus on helping employees find balance in their life, through education in areas such as fitness, resiliency, quality of life, suicide prevention and substance abuse, among other topics. Its presence on the Arsenal adds to the many individuals and organizations, such as the Employee Assistance Program and Army Substance Abuse Program, that are dedicated to keeping Team Redstone healthy.
"The stress on our force is quite evident," Arcuri said. "They're committed to AMC, the Army and their country. We owe our DA civilians and family members the same commitment the Army makes to our Soldiers."
Whether it's the Soldier returning from a deployment, the security guard worried about debt, or the AMCOM employee coping with the death of a loved one, everyone is susceptible to suicidal thoughts and the stressors that lead someone to it.
"In these uncertain times everyone is at risk for suicide if we do not acknowledge or address the warning signs," Johnson said. "We must eliminate the perception that seeking help is a weakness when in essence it is strength. Insight is a skill that is developed from wisdom and having the courage to do something about it."
Warning signs include feeling trapped or helpless, uncontrolled anger or rage, increased alcohol or drug use, withdrawal from friends and family, feeling no reason to live, or looking for ways to kill oneself. Individuals may contact the behavioral medicine department at Fox before the suicidal thoughts even hit for counseling, or reach out to other avenues such as the Employee Assistance Program, or Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If it's a moment of life or death, the emergency room is your best option for help.
"Warning signs of suicide are not difficult to spot, but professionals differentiate between someone who simply has a passing thought of suicide or ending his or own life, and someone who is more serious and has a definite plan," Johnson said. "You don't have to know how serious a person is in order to help them."
"There are no merit badges for overcoming stress autonomously," Besser said. "'Army Strong' is as much about the strength of team as the individual. If we are able to advocate only one message: getting help is a sign of strength."
Yet some people are still hesitant to seek help, according to Besser, for fear of the ramifications it may have on their job.
"One of our biggest concerns is the Soldier, civilian or family member who isn't getting help, afraid it will jeopardize their career, security clearance or benefits," Besser said.
In April 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates signed a memorandum stating the DoD's success in changing Question 21 of the SF 86 Questionnaire for National Security Positions. Individuals are now allowed to select no to the question, "In the last 7 years, have you consulted with a health care professional regarding an emotional or mental health condition or were you hospitalized for such a condition'" if the counseling was strictly marital, family, or grief related, including service in a military combat environment, protecting them from that fear.
Here to help
With the commitment coming from all ranks in the Army, everyone can play their part in suicide prevention.
"Help is available," Besser said. "Anybody can be a source of help. Nobody has to do this alone."
Get involved with your co-workers, Johnson said, make yourself "accessible when a person may be in crisis" and familiarize yourself with the resources available on the Arsenal and in the community. While the statistics aren't as readily available for how many suicides have been avoided thanks to preventive measures, reaching out at a time of need can be of help.
"If everybody had just had somebody that showed them they cared, most of those suicides could have been prevented," Arcuri said.
Contrary to popular belief, asking someone if they plan to hurt themselves isn't going to plant the idea to kill themselves in their head, experts say. Rather, reaching out a caring hand to an individual in pain may be the difference in their decision to reach for the shotgun or bottle of pills.
"You don't give a suicidal person morbid ideas by talking about suicide," Johnson said.
"The opposite is the truth," Serbia said. "If you say to someone, 'My God, are you thinking of hurting yourself'' that's reaching out to the person saying, 'I see that you're in pain and let me be there with you.'"
Activities throughout September are in place to remind everyone on the Arsenal to watch out for each other. Headquarters AMC-Forward and USASAC will hold Suicide Prevention Training Sept. 17 and 28 at Rocket Auditorium, building 7611, from 12:15 to 1:15 p.m. An interpreter will be available Sept. 28 for the hard of hearing. The Chaplain Office will also present Suicide Prevention briefings this Thursday at 9 and 10:30 a.m. at Bob Jones Auditorium. A walk sponsored by the Army Substance Abuse Program was held early this morning, and suicide and health assessments will be held at various organizations this week.
For more information about suicide prevention, and to view the video, visit www.preventsuicide.army.mil.