FORT LEE, Va. - According to the CDC, there are approximately 132 suicides in the United States every day. On average, 20 of them are Veterans. Three-quarters of those Veterans were not receiving VA health care services.
The Army has made impressive progress in behavioral health and suicide prevention resources over the years. Preventing Veteran suicides starts with training Soldiers to care for their mental health throughout their lifetimes. The Army is turning its focus to eradicating the stigma associated with seeking help.
The 16th Sergeant Major of the Army, Michael Grinston, drew attention to this problem with his poignant comment on Twitter. He wrote, “We don't judge Soldiers for going to a gym to get stronger, a financial counselor to start an investment account, a church to become more spiritual, a mechanic to tune up their car, enrolling in college, etc. And we SHOULDN'T judge them for seeking behavioral health, either.”
This comment served as a charge to leaders to break down the stigma around mental health.
Veterans of the Armed Forces feel significantly less comfortable seeking mental health support than they do using other personal and professional development resources. Leaders across the Army have recognized a need to encourage service members to seek help from their first day at basic training through the entirety of their life as a Veteran.
The Army’s current approach to suicide prevention focuses on peer support – one battle buddy guiding another toward resources when needed. Programs like Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) and Ask, Care, Escort—Suicide Intervention (ACE-SI) were fielded in the operational force to teach suicide prevention to service members.
In 2019, a federal program called Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End the National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) established a crisis hotline for Veterans’ use.
There are abundant resources to support service members and Veterans who are experiencing mental health crises.
Soldiers are trained to assist a battle buddy in need of support; however, teaching them to seek help for themselves requires an even more personal approach.
To help break down the stigma, leaders in the 59th Ordnance Brigade at Fort Lee, Virginia, implemented a suicide awareness campaign. Charlie Company, 16th Ordnance Battalion invited Master Sgt. (retired) Anthony Rosa and Sgt. 1st Class Annie Sparks to speak to trainees about the importance of seeking mental health support.
Rosa, a retired Marine, and Sparks, an active-duty Army Soldier, have both been touched by Veteran suicide and spend their free time spreading awareness through speaking engagements and events like ruck marches.
Mentorship sessions such as these are powerful tools, and the personal experiences of the guest speakers resonate with the audience in a way that other programs do not.
If leaders like Rosa and Sparks continue to share their stories and struggles, service members and Veterans may follow their example and take that first, intimidating step toward caring for their mental health.
From their first day in the Army, Soldiers should hear and see from their leaders that seeking mental health support is not only acceptable and non-punitive, it is a beneficial part of their personal preventative maintenance program. Communicating to Soldiers the importance of mental health care early in their Army careers will serve them for a lifetime.
Leaders teach Soldiers to care for their equipment and catch deficiencies before they become critical; they must take the same approach to their Soldiers’ mental health.