By James Brabenec, Fort Sill CannoneerFebruary 27, 2009
Fort Sill increased its focus on suicide prevention to help Soldiers recognize suicide-related behaviors, intervene when they see these behaviors displayed and encourage treatment for those who need it.
The campaign arose in response to the Army's suicide stand-down from Feb. 15 to March 15 and to recent statistics that showed a significant increase in suicides.
While briefings and train-the-trainer programs formed the foundation of prevention efforts, James Miller, human resources director here, said sustainment will ultimately determine the success of prevention efforts.
"Although we take suicide serious all the time, commanders need to maintain that focus and include aspects of suicide prevention at all training events throughout the year," he said.
At the forefront of this campaign, Soldiers and civilians attended two-hour suicide awareness and prevention briefings this week. Topics discussed included an overview of depression, latest suicide statistics and connections to depression, successful intervention techniques and finding help in the on- and off-post community.
Brigades also developed prevention programs designed to reach their Soldiers. At the 214th Fires Brigade, each battalion will hold its own suicide prevention stand-down.
For example, the 1st Battalion, 14th Field Artillery conducted two sessions of a three-part training program Friday. Commander Lt. Col. Anthony Gonzalez briefed all Soldiers and civilian employees on related information including risk factors, intervention and where to get help. He then introduced the Army's "Beyond the Front" interactive video. The battalion moved on to part two, training its small group leaders as they reviewed the battalion's "Steel Warrior Well Being Checklist" and the "Beyond the Front" facilitators' guide with talking points and tips. Leaders will hold their small group training, designed to reinforce ACE, risk factors, intervention techniques and coping strategies, through March 6 and view the "Beyond the Front" video with their Soldiers.
Brigade Chap. (Maj.) Milton Johnson said battalion chaplains will assist small group leaders in assessing Soldier's reactions to the video.
"A chaplain's presence puts Soldiers at ease so that they can talk about sensitive issues or things that are bothering them. And, they know that chaplain has the skills to get them help should they need it," said Johnson.
The 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade will conduct a safety stand-down day in March. It will include the following topics: stressors of life, identification of indicators, how to intervene and help, consequences of suicide, and life's worth living. The training will use a three-phased approach consisting of facilitator training, group sessions at platoon level and one-on-one sessions. The brigade will also open the safety day to family members.
Throughout the post, training, education and treatment remain the focal points for the ongoing prevention program. The Army Substance Abuse Program office administers the program and compiles and reports on statistical trends. Post chaplains and mental health professionals conduct training and provide treatment respectively.
Post leadership employs the following two highly effective programs in its prevention efforts. The ACE suicide intervention program employs a standard ace of hearts playing card, the program's three main tenets are: Ask your buddy; Care for your buddy; and Escort your buddy. These three steps provided a quick and easy tool to use to help Soldiers dealing with suicidal thoughts or actions to get the care they need. Along with ACE, the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training continues to aid chaplain efforts to teach Soldiers about suicide and associate behaviors.
While discussing prevention is certainly beneficial, Fort Sill's department head of behavioral health Lt. Col. (Dr.) Eric Leong said anyone can help someone considering suicide just by getting them to talk about what's troubling them.
"So often people who are suicidal perceive themselves as being all alone or trapped by circumstances that seem hopeless," said Dr. Leong. "Friends or family can be just the help the person needs because they know and care about the person."
Leong added mental health counselors can, through conversation, detect things others miss and improve a Soldier's chances of recovery.
Overcoming the stigma
During a recent Defense Department and Veterans Affairs suicide prevention conference in San Antonio, Army officials expressed their concern and desire to overcome the stigma many place on seeking mental health care.
Leong said he knows lower ranking Soldiers who said that stigma is still prevalent. He spoke of one Soldier whose unit displayed a "joke" brochure titled "I am a Profile" instead of the usual "I am a Soldier." The brochure suggested people meeting with counselors are whiners or complainers just trying to get out of a deployment or unpleasant duty.
Those corrosive undercurrents often affect those who do seek treatment. Leong said some of the Soldiers he sees are concerned their units will lose faith in their ability to perform their combat roles. Often, those Soldiers quit their treatment.
"People will go to a doctor with an infection and receive antibiotics. Often, within a week or two they are better," said Leong. "If people stick to their mental health treatment, they usually get better, but it may take a week, three months, a year or longer."
For those Soldiers considering talking with a counselor, Leong said they can go off-post and receive adequate care, but he suggested they stay on post and receive comparable or better care from counselors who can relate to issues they face. "Army mental health counselors are board certified and meet or often exceed the same standards set for their civilian counterparts," said Leong. "Best of all, many counselors are Soldiers themselves, and they want to help other Soldiers because they believe Soldiers are the best patients in the world."
Although the treatment may reveal or dredge up painful memories, Leong said the benefit is huge.
"Soldiers often tell me they couldn't have been able to work through their problems with out the help of a mental health counselor," said Leong. "To see that person free of the burden they carried in here and ready to move on with their life is why we do this job."
Barbara Fergeson from the ASAP office here said Fort Sill's suicide prevention program has produced positive results, but she added even one suicide is one too many.
"We can never be satisfied with our work if someone commits suicide here, because of pain it often inflicts on survivors," said Fergeson, the ASAP alcohol and drug control officer. "The post is committed to educating and training people about suicide prevention, and treating those who need help to save Soldiers one at a time."