FORT KNOX, Ky. — September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and Army officials at Fort Knox are reminding military and civilian personnel of support channels that are designed to reduce suicides.
With this year’s theme — “Support is Within Reach” — officials say the goal is to encourage connection among personnel by leveraging the five dimensions of personal readiness and resilience. The slogan also carries another meaning.
“It’s actually a play on words,” said Shirley Johnson, Army Substance Abuse Program Specialist with duties as the Suicide Prevention Program Manager and Risk Reduction Program Coordinator. “The word REACH is actually a brand new training that the Department of Defense came out with.”
Standing for “Resources Exist — Asking Can Help,” the Defense Department program is designed to be a prevention conversation geared to small groups of up to 10 people that seeks to break down the barriers to seeking help.
“It addresses all the common stigmas that are out there, specifically for Soldiers,” said Shirley Johnson. “It mirrors exactly the same things for a [Department of Army] civilian.”
Shirley Johnson will conduct the first training in REACH at Fort Knox sometime in December when he instructs the Garrison staff. Part of the training will identify the top 10 reasons Soldiers and Families feel they can’t seek help.
Another part of the training will involve a selected member calling Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 as if they have a problem and need help.
“Those at Military OneSource are awesome!” said Shirley Johnson. “They’ll play along with the scenario, but they’ll talk to them about the multiple resources available at Military OneSource for nonmedical counseling.”
Shirley Johnson said if it is determined that the person on the phone needs more than counseling, Military OneSource personnel will direct the individual to the right area, likely to somebody at Fort Knox.
Three of the top reasons Soldiers give for not seeking help include not wanting to be a burden to others, desiring to handle their own problems for whatever reason and fear of losing their security clearance.
“Less than 1% are denied a security clearance because of what some people perceive as a disqualifier, if that’s the only issue,” said Johnson. “An adjudicator looks at the whole person.”
Shirley Johnson explained that stigmas are not usually a one-sided problem. There are multiple underlying sources that go into creating a stigma.
“One source could be not wanting to look weak or becoming a burden to family members,” said Shirley Johnson. “However, another source could be the unit. Maybe the person doesn’t want to let down friends or a supervisor. ‘I’ll just try to handle this at the lowest level.’”
Still other sources include a feeling of patriotic pride — not wanting to let the Army or the nation down — or societal norms such as “Soldiers never quit,” according to Shirley Johnson.
Whatever the stigmas, they have led to 213 suicides Army-wide in 2021. At the same time last year, there were 202 suicides, 11 less. The year 2020 ended with 320 suicides.
Shirley Johnson said this is why it’s critical for units to form a golden triangle around its Soldiers, made up of fellow Soldiers, leaders and family members.
“If we can instill, equip and train those individuals of the warning signs and risk factors to member of the [triangle], and offer resources, maybe we can save lives,” said Shirley Johnson.
Dr. Laura Johnson, Department of Behavioral Health chief at Ireland Army Health Clinic, said counseling is something that should be done early, before those who are hurting face greater threats that require therapy.
“Sometimes it is identified that there is a pressing need for change in something that is causing problems, such as anger management or sleep issues – this is where non-medical counseling conduct by licensed/certified professionals can be extremely helpful,” said Dr. Laura Johnson. “Time is limited with a relatively easy resolution.”
One example she offered involved sleep issues. She explained that advice on implementing sleep hygiene could be offered, such as stopping caffeine usage after 1 p.m. or ceasing the use of video games a couple of hours before bedtime to allow the mind to reach a restful state.
However, there are times when something more than counseling is needed.
“Sometimes the anger management or the sleep issues are the result of deeper more complex issues that will require more time and individual talk therapy, and sometimes even medication intervention,” said Dr. Laura Johnson.
Shirley Johnson encouraged those who need help to contact the Military OneSource hotline or stop by Behavioral Health.
He also offered some other avenues, such as chaplains, Military and Family Life Consultants or Child and Youth Behavioral Military and Family Life Consultants at the Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, Army Community Service, and the Substance Use Disorder Care Clinic. Many of the programs accept walk-ins.
Oftentimes, simply listening to those who appear to be suffering can be the best medicine, according to Dr. Laura Johnson.
“Some folks just need to talk, vent or cry. This is where the ‘My Squad’ and the golden triangle are great; this is what leaders do — this is what friends and family do,” said Dr. Laura Johnson. “Also, a referral to the Army Wellness Center is ideal here — to learn some coping mechanisms beside the bad ones we seem to come upon naturally: overeating, drinking and [excessive shopping].”
Shirley Johnson said if people still don’t know who to call or feel they can’t talk to anybody else, he is also here to help.
“They can always call me [at 502-624-7374],” said Shirley Johnson. “I’ll find them the place they need, whether they’re a Soldier, Family member, DA civilian or retiree.”