Combating the stigma of suicide: An Army story
September 16, 2010
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Losing a Soldier to battle is tough. When that Soldier is your son, it's devastating. But losing two Soldiers, two sons, to different battles rocks a man to his core.
Major General Mark Graham and his wife, Carol, shared their personal story of tragedy - and ultimately, triumph - with a roomful of Soldiers, spouses and providers during the Suicide Prevention Luncheon held Sept. 10 at the Fort Bragg Club.
For the Grahams, breaking the silence is an initial step in overcoming suicidal stigmas in a culture designed to be Army strong. In 2003, weeks before their youngest son committed suicide and months before their oldest son would die in combat - the Grahams thought they had the perfect Family of five.
On the day before their eldest son's graduation from the University of Kentucky, Graham looked his youngest son, Kevin, in the eye and said, "you look great." While studying to be an Army doctor, Kevin was running twice a day, lifting weights and subscribing to Men's Health magazine.
"Kevin was running for his life," said Graham, who noted that exercise releases serotonin, which temporarily relieves the effects of depression.
"Kevin had so many good things going for him," added Graham, but his son's grades had started to slip earlier that year.
"Did you know depression is an illness and not just a feeling'" Kevin once told his mother.
When a friend found his antidepressant medication, Kevin feared it would affect his scholarship and his career if the Army found out. So Kevin quit the pills but continued to meet with a therapist. On the morning Kevin was scheduled to meet his brother for a round of golf, their sister discovered Kevin's body.
"If anyone you know and love exhibits depressive behavior, get him or her help immediately. Life is too precious to live with regret," his sister, Melanie, now tells others.
"We thought he'd get over it eventually...We didn't know much about depression. We didn't know you could die from it," said Graham when describing how they should have taken their son's problem more seriously.
Because suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age students, the Graham Family established a number of programs including the Jeffrey C. and Kevin A. Graham Memorial Fund at the University of Kentucky, which helps in the prevention of campus-related suicides. As part of this program, parents and students are oriented to the signs and symptoms of depression, some of which lead to suicidal thoughts.
"If they start talking like they don't belong or people would be better off without (them) or (they) don't have friends ... if their behavior starts changing, be aware," warned Graham.
"You can make a lot of mistakes in your life, but we missed this and we can never correct it," he added.
Carol encouraged her son in many ways but still wonders if they missed a key factor - connecting Kevin with a psychiatrist who specialized in depression (he was secretly meeting with a nurse practitioner).
"We don't know if we could have made a difference in the outcome, but we would have liked to have tried ... whether our insurance paid for it or not." Carol said.
"There's no category exempt from suicide - not rank, not age, not gender, not religion, not body type," said Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, commanding general, XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg. Helmick led the crowd in a round of applause for the Grahams and thanked the couple for sharing their story.
"General Helmick wanted all of his key leaders here to get them energized about the program," said Larry Holland, suicide prevention program manager, who facilitated the luncheon as part of Fort Bragg's observation of Suicide Prevention Month. The Army has seen a rise in suicides in recent years, with 160 confirmed, active-duty suicides last year alone.
"The factors that we see in most suicides is one of three things, if not a combination - relationship failure, professional failure and financial failure," said Holland. He emphasized that every situation is unique, but the Army has taken into account the similarities. For instance, more than half of the Soldiers were in their first term of service, and 36 percent never deployed. So while the trauma of war can play a factor, it may be a smaller part of the equation.
"If we knew 'why' to most of these questions, we'd be well on our way to decreasing suicides," said Holland. As the suicide program evolves based on Army needs, he said the goal is to create the right program at the right place for the right people.
At the media roundtable, a civilian reporter asked what is being done to remove these people (with suicidal depression) from the Army because they are mentally off balance.
Holland, who admitted to have struggled with the thought of suicide himself, said he would like to see the Army progress beyond this stigma. He understands that with proper support and treatment, many Soldiers move beyond the moment and go on to lead productive and satisfying lives.
Graham said it best during his speech, "When you look at the military in general, we have a tough culture - suck it up, be tough. And frankly you want your Soldiers to be able to go into life and death situations. But we also need to be compassionate enough to understand our Soldiers."
He added, "My boys will never be weaknesses in my life. They will always be my strength."