Never leave a fallen comrade

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- According to Department of Defense (DoD) statistics, there has been a substantial rise in the number of suicides for Active Duty, Reserve and National Guard Soldiers this year.

In an attempt to combat the rise in Army-wide suicides, efforts are being made to increase awareness of the risk factors and warning signs to prevent suicides. In addition, Army leadership across the board is stepping up to provide better assistance in mitigating causes linked to suicidal thoughts and actions.

"Suicide prevention is a huge challenge in the military," said Army Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Philip Volpe, chair of the Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide on Oct. 8 in Alexandria, Va. "There's stress on our family members and stress on our servicemembers. This is a unique time. Nowhere before in our history did people have to deploy over and over again."

The task force noted a need to address the stressors of nearly a decade of war, particularly related to the high operations tempo, Volpe noted. This applies to all servicemembers, both deployed and those supporting operations back home.

In 2009, according to a CNN story based on DoD statistics, 245 Soldiers committed suicide. Through the first six months of this year, 145 Soldiers have taken their own lives, 32 of them in June. According to Mike Mount, CNN Senior Pentagon Producer, June was worst month for Army suicides.

Since June, 77 potential Soldier suicides have been reported, 43 on active duty and 34 with reserve components not on active duty.

Efforts are being made to increase the support being provided to servicemembers, DoD civilians and family members who may feel suicidal or are concerned about someone they know who may be contemplating suicide.

"On September 29, the Army vice Chief of Staff signed the charter for the Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention Council and Task Force," said Army Col. Chris Philbrick, deputy director, Army Health Promotion, Risk Reduction Task Force. "These two groups are actively engaged in analyzing, shaping and implementing the more than 350 recommended changes to Army policy, procedures and processes proposed in the Army Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention Report released last July."

According to Margaret MacKenzie, Suicide Prevention Program Manager, Installation Management Command (IMCOM), Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Army chain of command is working to reverse the rising suicide rate by partnering with top researchers in the field of suicidology to find solutions. They are also looking for specific information on causes, trends and intervention which will impact Soldiers on the ground.

"You need to educate yourself, not just on the warning signs but also how to act for and approach people who are in crisis," MacKenzie said. "Get involved. I know it's hard. If you can't help, then find someone who can. People can be helped and suicides can be prevented."

One of the ways of doing this is to simply make yourself available to your friends and coworkers if there is a noticeable change in their behavior or attitude, MacKenzie said.

In addition to the day-to-day stressors everybody faces, Soldiers, their families and DoD civilians have additional, and very difficult, stresses than the average non-military related public, MacKenzie said. With ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is the burden of family separation for months at a time as well as reintegration after returning stateside.

In addition to support being offered from the top down, efforts are being made to help all Soldiers understand the frame of mind of people contemplating suicide, MacKenzie said. This provides a broader perspective for everyone, and can help Soldiers to more easily identify warning signs that a person may be having problems.

"People often remark that suicide is a selfish act," MacKenzie said. "But the suicidal person may sometimes convince themselves that everyone else would be better off if they were no longer alive. In their minds, they are thinking, 'I can't deal with this. Things are never going to change.' The terrible hopelessness of this kind of thinking leads some to commit suicide."

Because of this frame of mind, a person considering suicide is more likely to have problems eating, sleeping or enjoying activities. They may attempt self-medicating with drugs, food, and/or alcohol, MacKenzie said. Emotionally, they may become irritable, withdrawn, persistently sad, and may be unusually reckless in their behavior.
Unfortunately, recognizing these changes isn't enough if nothing is done to prevent the suicidal thoughts turning into suicidal acts, MacKenzie added.

Suicidal Soldiers may fear some sort of backlash or negative career repercussion, for seeking help for their emotional symptoms of depression and anxiety, so they become more isolated and withdraw from others.

"People in that frame of mind are desperate and in a lot of pain," MacKenzie said.

"They don't know who or where to turn. And they may also fear losing face. They may feel shamed because they feel that seeking psychological health care is a sign of weakness."

Within the military community there still exists a perceived stigma against seeking psychological health care, MacKenzie added. One program working to dispel this stigma is called the Real Warrior Campaign. This and many other programs have recently been added to provide support for personnel who want, and need, help.

"The overarching goal of this concerted effort is to reduce instances of high-risk behavior among our Soldiers, civilians and family members, who continue to serve under a high operational tempo, while reducing the stigma associated with help-seeking behavior, "Philbrick added. "These aspects are key components of the Army's Health Promotion, Risk Reduction Campaign Plan."

"Soldiers are not robots," MacKenzie said. "They have emotions, stress...Soldiers are humans with human needs. We must work in the military community to reduce the stigma against those who want help."

For additional information and resources on suicide prevention, The Suicide Prevention Program office is located at Building 2008B, Room B111, Lewis-Main. Information can also be found online at: www.preventsuicide.army.mil

For more information about the Real Warrior Campaign, check their website at www.realwarriors.net or call 866-966-1020.

If you are considering suicide but don't want to talk to anyone in person, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-8000-273-TALK. If you are concerned about somebody in your unit, your family, or even yourself, let your chain of command know.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16