USA — General Calls for Better Suicide Prevention Efforts

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The mil­i­tary must address the stress wear­ing down the force and work to end the stig­ma sur­round­ing men­tal health care to com­bat ris­ing sui­cide rates, the chair of the Depart­ment of Defense Task Force on the Pre­ven­tion of Sui­cide said today.

“Sui­cide pre­ven­tion is a huge chal­lenge in the mil­i­tary,” Army Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Philip Volpe said. “There’s stress on our fam­i­ly mem­bers and stress on our ser­vice­mem­bers. This is a unique time. Nowhere before in our his­to­ry did peo­ple have to deploy over and over again.”

Volpe stressed the need for bet­ter mil­i­tary sui­cide pre­ven­tion efforts and out­lined his task force’s rec­om­men­da­tions for doing so dur­ing the Tragedy Assis­tance Pro­gram for Sur­vivors Sui­cide Sur­vivor Sem­i­nar and Good Grief Camp here, which drew more than 200 fam­i­ly mem­bers from across the nation. The issue touched home for many. Near­ly all lost a mil­i­tary loved one to sui­cide, some as recent­ly as a week ago.

Sui­cide rates have near­ly dou­bled in the mil­i­tary in the past five years, Volpe not­ed. And the Army’s rates have exceed­ed the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion since 2005, with 606 sui­cides between 2005 and 2009.

The DOD’s con­gres­sion­al­ly man­dat­ed sui­cide pre­ven­tion task force spent the past year delv­ing into the military’s sui­cide pre­ven­tion pro­grams in an effort to improve them, Volpe said. The find­ings and rec­om­men­da­tions were sub­mit­ted to Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates for review in August. Gates will then sub­mit the results to Con­gress by Nov. 24.

Among its find­ings, the task force not­ed a need to address the stres­sors of near­ly a decade of war, Volpe said, par­tic­u­lar­ly relat­ed to the high oper­a­tions tem­po. This applies not only to deployed ser­vice­mem­bers, but to ser­vice­mem­bers sup­port­ing oper­a­tions back home as well. A high oper­a­tions tem­po can pre­vent ser­vice­mem­bers from cre­at­ing the bonds they need to pull them through dif­fi­cult times, he explained. The gen­er­al cit­ed dwell time, or the time between deploy­ments, as an exam­ple.

Mil­i­tary lead­ers expend a good bit of ener­gy dis­cussing the need for more dwell time, the gen­er­al not­ed, but fail to talk about the qual­i­ty of that time, which ulti­mate­ly is more impor­tant than the length.

“Ser­vice­mem­bers deploy for a year, then come back and their sched­ule is filled with events,” he said. “They nev­er get recon­nect­ed again to fam­i­ly, to friends. They nev­er get a chance to live through some of their expe­ri­ences.

“We’re just going and going like an engine with­out any repair,” he added.

The task force also dis­cov­ered a bro­ken cri­sis-response sys­tem. “There’s a whole bunch of hot­lines, num­bers, but when some­one is in cri­sis, who do you call?” Volpe said. “And what response will you get?”

The task force found a sig­nif­i­cant vari­a­tion in response and lev­els of train­ing with­in these resources. Some hot­lines, he said, refer peo­ple to anoth­er hot­line or resource. As a result, the per­son in need gets lost in the process.

The task force rec­om­mends a 911 equiv­a­lent for sui­cide cri­sis, Volpe said. Peo­ple know what to expect when some­one has a heart attack, but not when there’s a sui­cide. The mil­i­tary needs one hot­line with high­ly trained peo­ple who can take appro­pri­ate action.

The task force spent con­sid­er­able time study­ing the stig­ma that pre­vents ser­vice­mem­bers from seek­ing help, the gen­er­al said. The task force found that mul­ti­ple ini­tia­tives are need­ed to com­bat it. One solu­tion is to devel­op anony­mous sources where ser­vice­mem­bers can seek help with­out fear of career reper­cus­sion. But lead­ers must be aware of the draw­backs to that solu­tion, the gen­er­al said.

When some­one remains anony­mous, infor­ma­tion isn’t shared with lead­ers, Volpe explained. They may see a servicemember’s per­for­mance declin­ing and try to take action with­out know­ing that the mem­ber is seek­ing behav­ioral health care.

“While we need to cre­ate anony­mous sources so peo­ple under stress get help, we also need to attack the stig­ma,” Volpe said. “The mes­sage needs to be: You can be the best war­rior in the world but you’re still a human being. And call­ing in for help is no dif­fer­ent than if you call in for help for oth­er rea­sons.

“It’s OK to seek assis­tance and assis­tance works,” he con­tin­ued. “Those are the things we have to focus on.”

Volpe also called for bet­ter train­ing for behav­ioral health providers and chap­lains. “Just because you have a degree on the wall doesn’t make you good at under­stand­ing sui­ci­dal behav­ior and ways to pre­vent sui­cide,” he said. “We real­ly need to boost [train­ing] up. There’s a lack of under­stand­ing of sui­ci­dal behav­ior in our health care sys­tem.”

A lack of train­ing also exists across the ser­vices, Volpe not­ed. The ser­vices are con­duct­ing train­ing, but it’s not as effec­tive or inclu­sive as it could be. Most­ly, sui­cide pre­ven­tion train­ing is con­duct­ed with Pow­er­Point pre­sen­ta­tions annu­al­ly so ser­vice­mem­bers can mark the train­ing off a check­list. Volpe called that method inad­e­quate.

The gen­er­al called for skills-based train­ing, liken­ing it to weapons train­ing. The mil­i­tary would nev­er teach sol­diers how to fire a weapon by Pow­er­Point, he said, and the same applies to sui­cide pre­ven­tion. Train­ing needs to include prac­ti­cal lessons in under­stand­ing where to go for help and how to raise the issues of con­cern.

Volpe said there’s also a great need for fam­i­ly mem­ber train­ing, a com­ment met by enthu­si­as­tic applause from the audi­ence. Fam­i­ly mem­bers often say they knew some­thing was wrong with their loved one, but couldn’t pin­point the prob­lem. They didn’t know where to go for help or if their actions would help or hin­der, he said.

Fam­i­ly mem­bers need train­ing on sui­cide signs and avenues of help, and this train­ing needs to encom­pass more than just the spouse, but the par­ents, sib­lings, oth­er fam­i­ly and friends as well.

“Fam­i­lies are usu­al­ly the first indi­ca­tors, first detec­tors of some­thing not being the same, not being right,” he said. “It makes sense for fam­i­lies be includ­ed in a com­pre­hen­sive sui­cide pre­ven­tion pro­gram.”

Volpe con­clud­ed by cit­ing a need for bet­ter sui­cide after care, or “postven­tion,” not just for fam­i­lies, but for ser­vice­mem­bers who have lost a bat­tle bud­dy. Loss puts all loved ones at risk for destruc­tive behav­iors, includ­ing sui­cide, he not­ed.

Sui­cide pre­ven­tion isn’t about iden­ti­fy­ing weak­ness­es but cre­at­ing strengths, Volpe said.

“We learned ear­ly on that we’re not only sav­ing the lives of sol­diers, sailors, air­men and Marines, but we’re mak­ing this a bet­ter, more ready mil­i­tary by address­ing sui­cide pre­ven­tion,” he said. “We’re strength­en­ing the force.”

Volpe also thanked the audi­ence for their input into the task force’s report at last year’s sur­vivor sem­i­nar. “What we learned there pro­vid­ed us a guid­ing light for the remain­der of our work,” he said.

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

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