Family Matters Blog: Military Working to Stop Suicides, Mullens Say

WASHINGTON — Near­ly a decade of war is tak­ing its toll on our mil­i­tary fam­i­lies.
Mil­i­tary sui­cides have more than dou­bled in the Army, and exceed­ed the nation­al aver­age over the past five years.

Mil­i­tary lead­ers are intent on stop­ping this trend, not only among ser­vice­mem­bers but their fam­i­lies as well. 

Dur­ing a recent inter­view, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife, Deb­o­rah, talked about what it will take to stop troops and fam­i­lies from tak­ing their own lives. 

“It’s an area that can’t get enough focus right now,” the chair­man said. “When we’re los­ing as many lives as we are, it is a cri­sis we have to con­tin­ue to address.” 

Last year, sui­cide claimed 309 troops, and in 2008, 267 ser­vice­mem­bers com­mit­ted sui­cide, accord­ing to a Defense Depart­ment task force. 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. 

“A sig­nif­i­cant amount of work needs to be done on the pre­ven­tion aspect of [sui­cide] so we don’t get to the point where men and women would con­sid­er doing this,” Chair­man Mullen said. 

The mil­i­tary also must work to end the stig­ma that’s pre­vent­ing peo­ple from seek­ing help ear­ly on, Mullen said, includ­ing fam­i­ly mem­bers afraid to raise a red flag. 

Mrs. Mullen said she’s per­son­al­ly heard from spous­es about that fear. 

Spous­es often are the first to notice a prob­lem, but are fear­ful of the career reper­cus­sions for their ser­vice­mem­ber if they speak up, she said. 

“We know that ser­vice­mem­bers tell their spous­es not to men­tion any sort of symp­toms the ser­vice­mem­ber might be expe­ri­enc­ing for fear that, as one spouse said, ‘That will mean the end of their career,’ ” she said. “That stig­ma is so ingrained and embed­ded in not just the mil­i­tary, but in our coun­try, and break­ing through that is going to be key … to solv­ing this problem.” 

This inter­nal bar­ri­er to seek­ing help can have a far-rang­ing effect, also caus­ing spous­es to stop short of seek­ing much-need­ed help for them­selves, Mrs. Mullen said. Spous­es, she said, may be suf­fer­ing from stress, anx­i­ety, frus­tra­tion and anger, but are afraid of the fall­out from ask­ing for care. 

For­tu­nate­ly, fam­i­lies have more avenues of help now than ever before, includ­ing ones that offer anonymi­ty, she said. Peo­ple who are uncom­fort­able speak­ing with some­one at a mil­i­tary clin­ic can instead receive 12 free coun­sel­ing appoint­ments through Mil­i­tary One­Source or con­tact Tri­care for online coun­sel­ing at home. Oth­er resources include the Nation­al Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion Life­line at 1–800-273-TALK (8255), the Tragedy Assis­tance Pro­gram for Sur­vivors at 1–800-959-TAPS (8277) or a mil­i­tary fam­i­ly life con­sul­tant. Addi­tion­al­ly, the Real War­riors web­site offers sui­cide pre­ven­tion resources and per­son­al sto­ries of hope. 

Sup­port is par­tic­u­lar­ly vital after a sui­cide, when a fam­i­ly is at its most vul­ner­a­ble, Mrs. Mullen said, stress­ing the impor­tance of what she calls “post-ven­tion,” or after care. 

“It’s impor­tant to make sure that the peo­ple at risk after the sui­cide are reached and that they have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to express pri­vate­ly maybe their own con­cerns, their own thoughts,” she said. “I think if we pro­vide for them the appro­pri­ate post-ven­tion care that we will restore the hope for those fam­i­lies that this may not occur in their fam­i­ly again.” 

The Mul­lens both stressed the impor­tance of hope, both in pre­ven­tion efforts and in the after­math of a tragedy. A sui­cide, they said, means all hope was lost. 

“[There’s] help out there that would allow an indi­vid­ual to move through this,” the chair­man said. “Keep the hope, as dif­fi­cult as that may seem in these circumstances.” 

“No mat­ter how hard, how long, no mat­ter what it takes, how­ev­er many peo­ple need to get involved in this, this is some­thing that the mil­i­tary is going to pur­sue and try to elim­i­nate total­ly.” Mrs Mullen added. 

For more on this inter­view, read my Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice arti­cle, “More Focus Need­ed to End Sui­cides, Mul­lens Say” or watch the inter­view on the Pen­ta­gon Chan­nel Sept. 17, which will run as part of the channel’s spe­cial, “Restor­ing Hope: Sto­ries of Survival.” 

Also vis­it the Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice Web spe­cial “Restor­ing Hope: You can Help Save a Life.” My fel­low blog­ger and col­league, Heather Fors­gren Weaver, also wrote about this spe­cial in the Fam­i­ly Mat­ters Blog, “Blog­ger Urges Read­ers to Restore Hope.” 

To com­ment on this blog, vis­it the Fam­i­ly Mat­ters website. 

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

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