Suicide rates among U.S. active-duty Service Members increased by 41.4% from 2015 to 2020; Since 2001, more than 114,000 Veterans have died by suicide; 518 Service Members died by suicide in 2021.
These are just three of nearly two dozen grim statistics which lined the halls of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in September, aiming to bring awareness to suicide and mental health. As the Department of Defense’s only Level II Trauma Center overseas, LRMC is one of the first stops for psychiatric evaluations of deployed Soldiers throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
The cost of decades of war not only affects deployed Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, Marines and Guardians, but also takes a considerable toll on their families.
For 1st Lt. Stephanie Birge, the statistics are too real to overlook and too personal to forgo. After losing friends and fellow Soldiers to suicide, Birge believes there’s more work to be done.
“(Suicide prevention) is something I'm passionate about. Although we can never eradicate suicide, we can do something to help change the culture across the whole military community, so people feel comfortable saying I need help, I need support,” said Birge, a staff nurse at LRMC’s Emergency Department. “Quite often, those individuals feel as if they're burdening the rest of the world and they shouldn't because it's just life, and life is hard.”
At 16, Birge experienced the loss of her best friend. Years later following a deployment, a fellow Soldier took their own life, a loss which took the unit by surprise, Birge described.
To combat the longtime stigma of mental health, staff organized various events throughout September, depicting loss as a moment which can happen at any time. On Sept. 1, over a dozen staff members trekked 12 miles as part of a Darkness to Light Walk, some carrying a 22-pound rucksack, symbolizing the 22 Veterans who lose their battle to suicide every day. On Sept. 9, LRMC’s Inpatient Behavioral Health Ward partnered with a host nation functional fitness gym to host the first-ever Courageous Olympics, a fitness competition highlighting physical activity as a means of coping with mental health issues. In mid-September, a weeklong Suicide Prevention Resource Bingo was held, encouraging participants to locate six local resources for suicide intervention. Lastly on Sept. 23, an interactive observance realized the statistics as individuals, with a powerful message from the Army Substance Abuse Program.
“It's good that (mental health) is being talked about more,” said 2nd Lt. Ryan Washington, a staff nurse at LRMC’s Medical, Surgical, Pediatrics Inpatient Unit. “Even when I first joined (the Army), one of the Soldiers I was in (initial training) with committed suicide, so I've experienced the issue, as I know others have as well, from the beginning of my career.”
While mental illness is only one factor contributing to increased suicide risk, events focused on preventive measures and remaining resilient over contributing issues.
“(Efforts) like (the 12-mile walk) where you can socialize in groups, leaders talking about (suicide), welcoming Soldiers to talk with them about their issues, bringing awareness to talking about it, it’s making (suicide) a prevalent issue,” said Washington, who also participated in the 12-mile walk.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, healthy coping and problem-solving skills and feeling connected to one’s school, community or social institution are effective in protecting individuals against suicide risk.
“Some people find (physical activity) as a as a stress reliever, it helps a lot,” added Washington. “You feel much better after a workout, you can process things a little bit better. It's a positive reinforcement tool for sure.”
“Statistics, studies and research shows socialization as a really good protective factor against suicide,” said Birge, who led this year’s campaign. “We're hoping at some point if someone out here was having (suicidal ideations), they realize they have a huge support system they may not have known ever existed. If you have good leadership, if you feel like you are part of a team, people might not follow through with (suicide) because they don't want to let down their team.”
Although suicide is a leading cause of death among all Americans, uniformed personnel are often separated from familiar support systems, increasing reliance for such support on peers, leaders and resources.
“Not everyone’s family is (overseas) with (Service Members) and so you can't just drive down the street to mom and dad’s house, you can't just go get your sister or your best friend to talk with. Sometimes you're stuck, but we want them to know they're not stuck,” said Birge. “We want people to know where to go (for support). We're all here.”