Defense Department Joins Suicide Prevention Alliance

WASHINGTON — Tak­ing care of ser­vice­mem­bers is among Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates’ top con­cerns, he said today, and that includes pre­vent­ing mil­i­tary sui­cides.

“It is always a hor­ri­ble tragedy to see a ser­vice­mem­ber safe­ly off the bat­tle­field only to lose them to this scourge,” Gates said. “It is the ongo­ing duty of this depart­ment to do every­thing pos­si­ble to care for those who pro­tect our nation.” 

Speak­ing at the launch of the Nation­al Action Alliance for Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion at the Nation­al Press Club here, Gates under­scored the impor­tance of a nation­wide approach to sui­cide pre­ven­tion. The alliance’s strat­e­gy pools fed­er­al and pri­vate-sec­tor research and resources in hopes of bet­ter address­ing the nation­al sui­cide rate. 

Vet­er­ans Affairs Sec­re­tary Eric K. Shin­se­ki and Health and Human Ser­vices Sec­re­tary Kath­leen Sebe­lius are part of the alliance and rep­re­sent the pub­lic sec­tor on the board. Army Sec­re­tary John M. McHugh rep­re­sents the pub­lic sec­tor as co-chair. 

The mil­i­tary sui­cide rate has increased steadi­ly over the past five years, exceed­ing the nation­al aver­age of 11.1 sui­cides per 100,000 peo­ple. The mil­i­tary last year aver­aged 12.5, accord­ing to a Defense Depart­ment task force. 

Sui­cide claimed 309 mil­i­tary mem­bers last year, and 267 troops com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2008, the task force said. From 2005 to 2009, more than 1,100 ser­vice­mem­bers took their own lives, an aver­age of one sui­cide every 36 hours, the task force said.

“We must and we will do bet­ter,” Gates said. 

Gates out­lined some of the chal­lenges the mil­i­tary faces in sui­cide pre­ven­tion, cit­ing near­ly a decade of war and advance­ments in pro­tec­tion and bat­tle­field med­i­cine. While more troops are sur­viv­ing phys­i­cal injuries, psy­cho­log­i­cal war wounds have tak­en a toll on the mil­i­tary, he explained. 

The stig­ma asso­ci­at­ed with seek­ing help for post-trau­mat­ic stress and trau­mat­ic brain injuries also is a chal­lenge in sui­cide pre­ven­tion, he said, not­ing that such con­di­tions can increase the risk of suicide. 

“We are also con­fronting a his­tor­i­cal stig­ma attached to these kinds of wounds — a lack of under­stand­ing that they, too, are an inevitable con­se­quence of com­bat, that those fight­ing to recov­er deserve respect for their sac­ri­fice, as well as the best state-of-the-art care,” Gates said. 

The Defense Depart­ment has tak­en sev­er­al mea­sures to reduce stress on the force and help troops and their fam­i­lies in need, he said. 

Gates not­ed that the Army and Marine Corps are grow­ing the size of their forces to increase time at home between deploy­ments. Also, the Pen­ta­gon is work­ing to improve access to care by adding more 2,000 men­tal health providers at mil­i­tary health care facil­i­ties. Ini­tia­tives are also under way to improve care for reserve-com­po­nent troops and their fam­i­lies, many of whom don’t have the same access to sup­port as active-duty troops, he said. 

The Pentagon’s most notable — and per­haps most dif­fi­cult — chal­lenge is work­ing to change the reluc­tance with­in the mil­i­tary cul­ture to seek men­tal health care. Gates said troops who seek psy­cho­log­i­cal care are not at risk of dam­ag­ing their careers. In fact, he added, he prais­es their will­ing­ness to come forward. 

“As with almost every issue in our mil­i­tary, progress on this front comes down to lead­er­ship among those in com­mand and lead­er­ship posi­tions,” he said. “They need to aggres­sive­ly encour­age those under them to seek help if need­ed, and also set an exam­ple by doing the same.” 

Tack­ling the military’s sui­cide issue will trans­late to suc­cess in the civil­ian world, he added. 

“In every­thing we do, we must remem­ber that every sol­dier, sailor, air­man or Marine is part not just of the mil­i­tary, but also of a larg­er com­mu­ni­ty,” the sec­re­tary said. “Their fam­i­lies, their home­towns, their civil­ian employ­ers, their places of wor­ship all must be involved in the solution.” 

McHugh agreed. The Army’s efforts to bet­ter under­stand what it takes to pre­vent sui­cide among its force have deter­mined that many of the issues are not relat­ed just to the Army and mil­i­tary, he said. 

“Many [psy­cho­log­i­cal issues] are the shared chal­lenges that every cit­i­zen in every com­mu­ni­ty in this coun­try and indeed in every cor­ner of this world faces — things like drug and alco­hol abuse, finan­cial hard­ships [and] rela­tion­ship chal­lenges,” he said. 

Get­ting peo­ple to seek help and reduc­ing the nation’s sui­cide rate must be a team effort, McHugh said. 

“As proud as we are of what we can accom­plish, we nei­ther can nor wish to go it alone,” McHugh said. “This is such an excit­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty and an hon­or for us to part­ner with some of the most illus­tra­tive orga­ni­za­tions and minds, some of the most lead­ing schol­ars and groups involved in this crit­i­cal challenge. 

“I look for­ward to the work ahead,” he con­tin­ued. “I look for­ward to learn­ing and to tak­ing those lessons back to the department.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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