Friday, March 06, 2009

Suicide prevention in the US Army

I sat in on another Blogger's Round Table discussion yesterday; one that was close to my heart. The topic was suicide prevention. The Army's suicide rate now exceeds the civilian suicide rate, and the Army isn't taking it lightly. The guests for yesterday's call were GEN Peter W. Chiarelli, Army Vice Chief of Staff; BG Colleen McGuire, Army Personnel Representative; COL Thomas Languirand, Army Suicide Prevention Task Force, and Dr. COL. Elspeth Ritchie, Army Psyhciatrist. You know it's a serious issue when the Vice Chief of Staff for the Army is your guest.

GEN Chiarelli set the tone of the conversation with his opening remarks:

As a leader and a human being, I'm deeply saddened each time a Soldier loses his or her life, but it is especially troubling when a Soldier commits suicide. The culture of the Army is that of a team, and any time one of our own feels so lost that he or she sees no other option than to take their own life, we've failed as an organization.


During the call we learned that the Army is working with the other branches to bring suicide rates down, something I was very happy to hear. As of March 2, 2009, the 2008 suicide number stood at 138, with five still pending confirmation. January 2009 saw 12 suicides, with another 12 still pending. February wasn't much better- two confirmed and 16 pending. As the General said, "this is not business as usual."

Why is this happening? What factors are contributing to the rising suicide rate?

One major factor is a breakdown of a personal relationship- boyfriend/girlfriend or spouse. 60% of Army suicides can be attributed in part to failed domestic relationships. 17% involved drug abuse problems. However, only 5.4% can be attributed to diagnosed PTSD, and the suicide rate actually falls for those who have been on multiple deployments. That tells me that the more seasoned warrior is better equipped to handle stress and difficult situations. Most involve more than just one triggering event- perhaps both a breakup and financial issues, or a divorce and legal issues. There's no correlation between deployed, never been deployed, and post-deployment suicide rates. There *is* a correlation between civilian-side unemployment amongst Reserve and National Guard Soldiers and their suicide rates. But no matter how you analyze it, the rate has been steadily increasing.

Here's my question:
I've been personally affected by military suicides twice in the past couple of years. One was successful; one wasn't. But what was common in both, was the stigma of needing mental health care by superiors and peers. The unsuccessful attempt resulted in the yanking of security clearances which nearly got him kicked out of the service. He appealed the initial discharge decision, but successfully made his case in front of the medical review board. In the other case, the Soldier did reach out to his NCOIC, who didn't know how to handle the situation. He was eventually recommended for medical discharge due to PTSD. He had a lot of problems, and when his battle buddy was killed, it only got worse. He checked himself into the VA, but in the end, none of the intervention helped and he successfully ended his life last year.

I want to know: how are you going to eliminate the stigma of needing mental health care within the Army?

GEN. Chiarelli addressed my question, saying that "We have to permeate the entire organization, down to the lowest level, in ensuring that ALL soldiers and civilians realize that some people will not self-refer themselves, will reach out for help. And we have to be able to identify those signs and take the appropriate action. And the appropriate action isn't to ask that individual to seek some kind of help; it is to take that individual, to ensure that they seek that help.

So I can tell you that this is one of the true centerpieces of what we're trying to do right now, both with our stand-down and our change, each, is to get down to the lowest level.... the absolute necessity (is) to, number one, get rid of the stigma and number two, know the warning signs so that you can help your buddy.

COL. Ritchie also spoke up about security clearances, stating that the Army has changed the questionnaire so that you don't have to report mental health counseling due to combat experience any more. She went on to say that "As you all may or may not be aware, the Army wanted to go further on that one. (but) The security clearance is a form that all of the different government agencies subscribe to." She firmly believes that people who seek help should not have their security clearances pulled as a general rule- each case should be reviewed based upon its own merits. Sometimes it's warranted; but not always. I was very happy to hear that.

The bottom line is that the Army has a lot of work to do, but they recognize it and they're doing something about it, instead of just a "ho hum, bummer" attitude toward preventing suicide and removing the stigma of mental health counselling within their ranks. It was quite apparent to everyone that the Army is taking this problem very seriously, and is addressing it very aggressively, at all levels.

I was especially encouraged to hear the dedication and passion in ALL of answers given. Equally as important was MAJ C's comment that if any NCOIC or Officer won't get up at 3am to take a Soldier under their command to the hospital for help... shouldn't have the job. Damn straight.

Please... if you are a Soldier in need of help, or the friend or relative of a Soldier in need... I am pleading with you to get help. Go to the hospital now and check in. Get the help you need so that you can continue to bless us with your presence in the world. There are too many people who care about you to give up.

~cross-posted at The Castle


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