By Elizabeth M. LorgeSeptember 5, 2008
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 5, 2008) - With National Suicide Prevention Week, Sept. 7-13, Army officials say they are reviewing their current policies and emphasizing the help junior leaders and fellow Soldiers can provide to a team member in crisis.
This year's theme, "Shoulder-to-Shoulder: No Soldier Stands Alone," emphasizes the strength and teamwork necessary to combat suicide, said Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, assistant surgeon general for force protection. It is also reminiscent of the Warrior Ethos' "I will never leave a fallen comrade."
The announcement was made Thursday, the same day Cornum and other Army officials told reporters that the number of Soldier suicides in 2008 may exceed last year's all-time high of 115. To date, the Army has confirmed 62 suicides this year, with another 31 pending - higher numbers than at the same time last year, said Col. Eddie Stephens, deputy director for human resource policy for the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, G-1.
"This week offers us the opportunity across the entire Army to recharge and re-invigorate our efforts, as well as continue our efforts in decreasing the stigma associated with seeking help," Cornum said.
"It is a potentially preventable tragedy and every effort must be made to inform Army personnel of risk factors involved and to train our Soldiers, families and civilians to actively intervene, and I think that is the biggest difference this year...We've done a lot of education previously, but this year, the idea is to actively intervene if necessary and to make sure that people are aware of what professional assets are available," she continued.
While the Army plans to continue existing suicide-prevention programs such as battlemind training, which teaches other Soldiers and family members how to recognize a Soldier in crisis; deploying mental-health advisory teams to theater; recruiting more behavioral-health specialists and most importantly, reducing the stigma associated with getting help -- its new focus will be on teaching Soldiers, families and Army civilians how to help.
For example, the Army is working with Lincoln University in Missouri to launch an interactive prevention-training DVD. Soldiers will become characters in the story, and the outcome changes depending on what options they choose. Each Soldier will also carry an "Ace" card reminding him or her to never leave someone alone to get help, but to personally escort that Soldier to help. And starting in 2009, resilience and prevention training will be incorporated into basic training.
Two groups are absolutely essential in ensuring Soldiers get the help they need, officials said.
Junior leaders have the most face time with their Soldiers and know them the best, so they have to be able to recognize risks, said Stephens.
"We're targeting our junior officers and noncommissioned officers because that's the face of the Army to those thousands and thousands of privates out there," he said. "Building that relationship allows them to listen and be heard and communicate on a one-to-one basis with the troops they are leading, and building their trust and confidence...so when (their Soldiers) have problems, they will be part of the solution."
Chaplains are also crucial to helping Soldiers find balance and hope, said Col. David Reese, director for ministry initiatives for Office of the Chief of Chaplains. Not only does the chaplaincy's Strong Bonds program help invigorate failing relationships - one of the leading causes of suicide - chaplains provide safe places for Soldiers to go without any stigma attached.
Both Reese and Lt. Col. Carleton Birch, in strategic communications for the chief of chaplains, said most chaplains have stories of Soldiers who came to them for help.
"The one that hits me the most is returning back from R&R leave, going back into theater, said Birch. "We're in Kuwait, waiting to go to Afghanistan, and a savvy chaplain's assistant came up to me and said, 'I think you'd better talk to this guy. He's going through a hard time.' So we're getting on the plane and ready to fly out and I start taking to him, hear his story. It wasn't atypical, but certainly kind of tragic.
"He returned from his R&R leave to find his wife with someone else and found himself alone at his friend's house. He fell into a depression as a result and his friend had guns. He picked up one of those hand guns, pulled the trigger, heard the click and nothing happened...He thought that 'maybe God wants me to live for a little while longer.' But he still was in a depression...still wanted to kill himself, but was going back into theater to get his weapon back. He knew, he would admit, that he was not ready to get his weapon back. He was not safe.
"So thanks to that type of intervention...by that savvy Soldier who was listening to the Soldier beside him and said 'I've got to get this guy some help,' he went into the mental-health community. He got the help he needed," Burch said.
Right now the Army can't track how many lives like this have been saved; it can only count attempted and completed suicides. But plans are in the works to change this as well, to determine how successful prevention efforts really are.
According to Stephens, the Army is creating a suicide analytical capability at the Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine in early 2009 to fill some of these gaps. This cell would integrate all investigative reports and statistical data for Army suicides, with the goal of finding better ways to prevent it in the future. He said the Army has to determine what success looks like and how to measure it.
While Cornum said one suicide is one too many and was dismayed by the upward trend, she said the numbers could have been even higher if the Army hadn't taken the steps it did.
In addition, the Army can't just work on prevention, it has to do more, Cornum said. While health-care experts have been unable to find one definitive way to prevent suicide, she said the Army needs to focus on lifestyle changes, building resilience, increasing social confidence and enhancing problem-solving skills for Soldiers, providing a sense of purpose for the future and a path to get there.
"Our goal is to develop an approach that builds life-long resilience in our recruits, makes them successful Soldiers, as well as successful citizens, long after they leave the Army, and makes strong mental health as much of a priority as physical health," she said.