One life lost to suicide is one too many. The Army is ensuring Commanders have the policies, resources, and tools needed to prevent suicides and that Family members and teammates are aware of the warning signs, and have the knowledge and skills to intervene.
One way the Army is combating suicides is by promoting connectedness. Building strong, positive relationships with others can protect against suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Preventing suicide by building protective factors such as connectedness between individuals can lead to lower levels of social isolation, loneliness, and an increase in positive relationships.
One example of providing connectedness is through spirituality, according to Army Chief of Chaplains (Maj. Gen.) Thomas Solhjem, who spoke during the DoD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference this past spring.
“This is really an issue of life and death,” said Solhjem. “Spirituality helps warriors and their Families cope with challenges and find meaning and purpose.”
Solhjem said cultural shifts in America during the past 40 to 50 years have minimized the significance and role of spirituality in the arenas of individual wellness and responsibility.
“The Army faces great challenges in combatting suicide and harmful behaviors,” Solhjem said. “The dismissal of spirituality as a primary means to ensure Soldier and Family well-being leaves many to suffer under spiritual distress or duress. Soldiers must learn to develop skills and their own spiritual path to readiness.”
According to Solhjem, the Army has partnered with Dr. Lisa Miller, of Columbia University Teachers College, to integrate a partnership program for Army command teams, behavioral health specialists and chaplains.
Miller, one of the nation’s premier leaders in the science of spirituality, is the director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute and has over 20 years of longitudinal research on the subject. She joined military officials in traveling to installations in Alaska and Hawaii and is scheduled to make visits to other locations.
“We are working with our chaplain team, behavioral health providers, and other care providers as well as the leadership team, educating people on the importance of spirituality and spiritual connections,” said Solhjem.
Solhjem explained the research Miller brings to the table will allow Army chaplains, behavioral health specialists, and command teams to work together to ensure Soldiers have a place to go and a variety of people to talk to, regardless of religious or spiritual specificities. The training is intended to help key leaders show their Soldiers that they don’t need to have a faith-based perspective in order to ask for and receive help.
“In the U.S. Army, the Chaplain Corps’ role is to build spiritual readiness by being champions for the importance of the spiritual dimension in our lives and the protective factors that grow from within our spiritual cores and our beliefs,” he said. “Everyone has a spiritual core, but our spiritual cores cannot develop without the proper support and that’s why in the Army we invest in people. We connect them in spirit and cultivate them in community.”
“Spirituality science tells us that it’s 80 percent protective against substance dependence and abuse, 70 percent protective against risk-taking behavior, 60 percent protective against major depressive disorders, and 80 percent protective against suicidality,” said Solhjem.
“So, understanding the science is very important,” he said, but it’s just as important to understand the generational shift that has led to a reduction in focus on spirituality and matters of faith in our culture.”
Solhjem said this generational shift has led to accelerating rates of depression, anxiety and risk taking in youth who don’t seem to have the coping skills to deal with disappointment or difficult circumstances.
“We are finding great receptivity across the Army wherever we have gone,” Solhjem said of their installation visits.