USA — More Focus Needed to End Suicides, Mullens Say

WASHINGTON — A silent killer is rapid­ly infil­trat­ing the mil­i­tary, claim­ing lives at an alarm­ing rate each year.

It does not dis­crim­i­nate, tak­ing aim at the young and old, male and female — from the bat­tle-hard­ened sol­dier to the new recruit.

Mil­i­tary sui­cides have more than dou­bled in the Army, exceed­ing the nation­al aver­age over the past five years, and lead­ers are redou­bling efforts to fig­ure out why.

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

In an inter­view with the Pen­ta­gon Chan­nel and Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice, Mullen and his wife, Deb­o­rah, talked about what it will take to stop troops and fam­i­lies from tak­ing their own lives.

“It’s a very dif­fi­cult, vex­ing, com­plex prob­lem and one that lead­er­ship has to spend an awful lot of time on to try to fig­ure out,” Mullen said. “It’s one that in the coun­try is not well under­stood; there­fore, [it’s] one in the mil­i­tary that isn’t under­stood.”

While top lead­ers are strug­gling to find answers, mil­i­tary sui­cides have reached a crit­i­cal point, the chair­man said. 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.

Some reports attribute the spike to mul­ti­ple deploy­ments and long fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tions. The major­i­ty of sui­cides do take place among ser­vice­mem­bers who have deployed, Mullen said. Still, a con­sid­er­able num­ber occur among those who haven’t deployed, he added.

Com­pli­cat­ing the issue is a delay in symp­toms for those who have served in com­bat, Mullen said. In many cas­es, post-trau­mat­ic stress symp­toms don’t reveal them­selves until months or years lat­er, and a ser­vice­mem­ber may be dis­charged by that time and back in a civil­ian com­mu­ni­ty with­out the same lev­el of sup­port. The mil­i­tary needs to find ways to track those ser­vice­mem­bers so they receive the sup­port they need, he 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,” he said.

Lead­ers also must gain an under­stand­ing of the problem’s scope, includ­ing the signs, symp­toms and vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion, he said.

“More than any­thing else, I think, mil­i­tary lead­ers have to lead,” Mullen said. Many lead­ers have had chal­lenges them­selves, he not­ed, and the way they address those chal­lenges, seek­ing help when need­ed, can set the exam­ple for oth­ers.

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.

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

When fam­i­ly mem­bers have the courage to ask for help, the mil­i­tary must step up care, Mrs. Mullen said. She said she spoke with a mil­i­tary spouse with sui­ci­dal thoughts who sought help from a mil­i­tary physi­cian. She was giv­en med­ica­tion, but not a fol­low up. If some­one is brave enough to come for­ward, the mil­i­tary must offer ongo­ing sup­port, includ­ing men­tal-health fol­low-ups, she said.

Mrs. Mullen called for train­ing with­in fam­i­lies to help them rec­og­nize issues in their ser­vice­mem­ber and in them­selves, and to know what to do about them with­out fear of reper­cus­sion.

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.

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.

To watch this inter­view with Adm. and Mrs. Mullen, tune in to the Pen­ta­gon Channel’s “This Week in the Pen­ta­gon” today and Sept. 17. The inter­view will run as part of the channel’s spe­cial, “Restor­ing Hope: Sto­ries of Sur­vival.”

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

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