Chaplains offer support for those with suicidal thoughts
March 7, 2012
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (Mar. 8, 2012) -- Suicide can have a devastating effect on Families, friends and other Soldiers. Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Milton Johnson knows from experience. He carries around a photo of a sergeant major who committed suicide while he was stationed at Fort Sill, Okla. Johnson was in the same unit.
"We ran together every day and he committed suicide. He took his own life. And we just didn't see it coming," the chaplain said.
The Soldier's death devastated the unit. "We were at a loss for words. That unit's morale went way down for a long time and it took a long time for the unit to recover. We all loved him. He was one of the sharpest Soldiers in the unit," Johnson explained.
Johnson, Fort Rucker's deputy installation chaplain, says if he looks back on the days before the Soldier's death at Fort Sill, he can see some warning signs in the Soldier's behavior. But, at the time, no one in the unit recognized the signs for what they were.
This is why he says communication within a Family, or with other Soldiers, is the key to preventing something that is irreversible.
In the past, Johnson said, many Soldiers were hesitant to ask for help because it could jeopardize their career, but "that's no longer the case."
"If you seek help about having thoughts that are dangerous about yourself or about someone else, we welcome it. You're not going to be ostracized. Your career is not going to be in jeopardy and no one is going to hurt you for that," he explained.
Today, if a Soldier seeks help from a chaplain, or if the chain of command refers a Soldier to the chaplain's office, the chaplain will determine if the case can be handled in the office or if the Soldier should be referred on to a mental health or medical professional, Johnson said.
If the case stays with a chaplain, the Soldier will be asked to complete a plan of counseling. If a Soldier is considering suicide, then that Soldier will be directed to the Family life chaplain, he said.
Family life chaplains are chaplains who have returned to school to get a master's degree in counseling psychology or a similar field. They are trained to do professional counseling. Johnson says the Army tries to have a Family life chaplain at every base.
Johnson was a Family life chaplain at Fort Stewart, Ga., but at Fort Rucker, the designated Family life chaplain is Chaplain (Maj.) Scott Crossfield.
The Family life chaplain is prepared to do counseling with or without a religious perspective, Johnson said.
"A lot of times when you meet somebody who is suicidal, one of the first things they will tell you is 'I don't want to hear any of that Jesus talk.' Well, the Family life chaplain is not startled by that at all. They are still trained to take that Soldier in and counsel them professionally without mentioning the Bible or saying anything about a life of faith," Johnson said. "There is a whole lot of good you can do for a Soldier who is suicidal without mentioning the Bible."
However, if Soldiers want to speak with someone who is a Christian and want the Bible included in their counseling, the Family life chaplain is prepared for that, too, Johnson said.
"Everything we do and everything we will do (in the counseling) will include what God has to say about their situation," he explained.
No matter what the Soldier's background may be, the bottom line is keeping them safe and giving them support, Johnson said.
That support involves a three-step approach, he said. The first step is prevention. This step is all about education. People need to know how to handle a suicidal situation and what tools are available to them if they are considering suicide.
The next step is intervention. Johnson said this step is important "because people do become suicidal and there is a way to handle individuals who are suicidal."
The final step is called post-vention. "You've got to check on people. After they've been treated and cared for, you have to go back and check on them. You just don't treat an individual and think that it's over," the chaplain explained.
Johnson said the post-vention step is sometimes overlooked, but it is just as important as prevention and intervention. Some of the ways the chaplains check in on people are phone calls, cards and visits.
"The most important thing to remember is that if a person is suicidal, if they're really planning to take their life, they can heal. It's like when people suffer from drug abuse and alcohol abuse -- there is recovery. And after recovery, they can be productive again," he said. "Sometimes they can come out of it and be even better than they were before."
Johnson says he think this is why the Army no longer ostracizes Soldiers who seek help. He said he knows of real-life cases where Soldiers have struggled with suicide, been treated, and are now some of the best professionals in the Army.
"This is not something that we treat and then we discharge them from the Army because they're not useful anymore. This is someone who struggles with a challenge like any other challenge, and they recover after treatment and become stronger," he said.
But, before someone can be treated, they must realize they need help. This is where Family, friends and fellow Soldiers are so important.
Johnson said a drastic change in behavior is one of the most common signs. If a person is happy-go-lucky and suddenly becomes an extreme introvert, Family members should take note of that. More frequent discussion of death and sudden talk of changing careers can also be signs.
"I'm not saying that everyone who changes their behavior is suicidal. But if there is a drastic change in behavior, then Family members need to take note of that," he explained.
"If a Soldier is thinking dangerous thoughts, they shouldn't prolong getting in touch with somebody. If they're thinking dangerously, or if they think they're thinking dangerously … if they're struggling with these thoughts and if it is difficult to shake off these thoughts … then it is time to contact somebody -- whether it's us, mental health or the hospital, or the chain of command," he said. "Don't sit on it. Don't go through the weekend. Contact somebody and get some help."
For more information on chaplaincy services or to get help, call 255-2989.