USA — Navy Suicide Prevention: It’s an All-Hands Effort

WASHINGTON — Bal­anc­ing mil­i­tary and per­son­al life involves sac­ri­fices. At times, this bal­anc­ing act can cause sailors to become extreme­ly over­whelmed and even depressed.

Some sailors might seek guid­ance from ship­mates while oth­ers can let feel­ings fes­ter. Unre­solved emo­tions can become unbear­able and, like a pot of boil­ing water, the sailor over­flows. See­ing no way out, 46 sailors took their lives last year. 

Sui­cide is the third-lead­ing cause of death in the Navy, account­ing for 13 per­cent of fatal­i­ties in 2009, offi­cials said. Any loss of a sailor’s life can be dev­as­tat­ing for a fam­i­ly and com­mand. It’s impor­tant that sailors are famil­iar with the signs and symp­toms of sui­cide so iden­ti­fy­ing a ship­mate con­tem­plat­ing sui­cide is easier. 

The Navy rec­og­nizes the seri­ous­ness of sui­cide and has devel­oped addi­tion­al train­ing meth­ods to help sailors acknowl­edge they are front line sup­port­ers of sui­cide pre­ven­tion efforts. Sailors, from pay grades E‑1 to O‑10, are key play­ers in the sui­cide pre­ven­tion process, some­thing that begins with the chain of com­mand, with cowork­ers and with friends of the sailor expe­ri­enc­ing neg­a­tive thoughts. 

“One big thing that peo­ple neglect about sui­cide is the pow­er of lit­tle things,” said Capt. Paul S. Ham­mer, direc­tor of the Naval Cen­ter for Com­bat and Oper­a­tional Stress Con­trol. “So often we see that many peo­ple were dis­suad­ed from hurt­ing them­selves by some­one who made a very minor ges­ture that turned out to be huge.” 

The NCCOSC devel­oped a sui­cide pre­ven­tion kit called Front Line Super­vi­sor Train­ing that was most­ly writ­ten by Todd Pick­el, a retired Navy corps­man and neu­ropsy­chi­a­try spe­cial­ist. The kit is geared toward sailors’ aware­ness of behav­ior lead­ing to sui­cide through inter­ac­tive sit­u­a­tion­al training. 

“Our over­all goal is to cre­ate a pos­i­tive envi­ron­ment where indi­vid­u­als feel com­fort­able ask­ing for help and where pos­i­tive lead­er­ship and avail­abil­i­ty of resources are under­stood,” Pick­el said. 

Two hun­dred upper ech­e­lon and instal­la­tion sui­cide pre­ven­tion coor­di­na­tors recent­ly received front-line super­vi­sor train­ing by pro­gram cre­ators that includ­ed Lt. Cmdr. Bon­nie Chavez, a behav­ioral health pro­gram manager. 

“The Navy sui­cide pre­ven­tion pro­gram builds on sailor and leader car­ing, by sup­port­ing com­mand-lev­el efforts with pol­i­cy, infor­ma­tion and tools,” Chavez said. “Sailors and lead­ers gen­uine­ly care and have shown it in the way they vig­or­ous­ly engage in focus groups, put forth tremen­dous cre­ativ­i­ty to devel­op posters and enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly embrace new hands-on train­ing materials.” 

Front-line super­vi­sor train­ing incor­po­rates videos and music, pock­et-sized ref­er­ence cards, infor­ma­tion for plan-of-the-day mes­sages and posters ideas and resources cre­at­ed to raise sailors’ aware­ness of sui­cide-pre­ven­tion tactics. 

Accord­ing to Ham­mer, the first step in sui­cide pre­ven­tion is iden­ti­fy­ing sub­tle warn­ing signs, some of which may include but are not restrict­ed to: with­draw­al from fam­i­ly and friends, abuse of drugs or alco­hol, poor per­for­mance at work and engag­ing in reck­less acts by a usu­al­ly cau­tious per­son. Notic­ing a trend of abnor­mal­i­ties in a ship­mate can help sailors rec­og­nize sub­tle changes in that individual’s behav­ior. Sailors then can take nec­es­sary steps to help ship­mates tar­get the root of neg­a­tive feel­ings before sui­cide thoughts are reached. 

The sui­cide pre­ven­tion kit entered the fleet in April and it includes the new video, “A Mes­sage from Sui­cide,” along with inter­ac­tive, peer-to-peer facil­i­tat­ed training. 

“What’s dif­fer­ent is we take the audi­ence through a case study,” Ham­mer explained. “We turn it into a dis­cus­sion that the audi­ence can be involved in. This gives them the abil­i­ty to see from start to fin­ish what real­ly goes on in the mind of a per­son deal­ing with sui­ci­dal thoughts. We ulti­mate­ly are prepar­ing them to han­dle encoun­ters and giv­ing effec­tive ways to be first­hand responders.” 

Accord­ing to Chavez, the sui­cide pre­ven­tion kit advis­es sailors who come face-to-face with some­one in a sui­ci­dal sit­u­a­tion to visu­al­ize the acronym ACT: Ask, Care and Treat. 

Ask involves rec­og­niz­ing sailors with prob­lems and stay­ing engaged. Too often, sailors are over­ly involved with their own day-to-day hap­pen­ings. Rec­og­niz­ing a ship­mate deal­ing with stress that can lead to visions of sui­cide is impor­tant. Start off with a sim­ple ques­tion, “What’s both­er­ing you?” Encour­age trou­bled sailors to talk about what they are feel­ing and ask if they are think­ing of tak­ing their life. Most impor­tant­ly, don’t judge. 

Care involves lis­ten­ing thor­ough­ly. Hav­ing a 20-minute con­ver­sa­tion or accept­ing an ear­ly-morn­ing phone call can save the life of a sailor con­tem­plat­ing sui­cide. Let them know there is hope and they’re not alone by giv­ing them your undi­vid­ed atten­tion and hav­ing an open heart. 

Treat means tak­ing the sailor to get help. Do not leave them alone until pro­fes­sion­al help has arrived. Con­tin­ue offer­ing sup­port for that ship­mate through treat­ment and after. Some­thing as sim­ple as invit­ing the sailors over for din­ner on Sun­day nights can show them that their pres­ence is appre­ci­at­ed. Over time, this sim­ple act can encour­age them to seek help in deal­ing with sui­ci­dal thoughts. 

In three words: be a friend. 

Some sailors may feel over­whelmed with the thought of encoun­ter­ing a ship­mate on the verge of caus­ing self-harm. If they believe they are unable to pro­vide ade­quate assis­tance, they should con­tact some­one who can. 

“For most sailors, sui­cide pre­ven­tion is more than a gen­er­al mil­i­tary train­ing top­ic,” Chavez said. “Near­ly half of sailors in the Navy have per­son­al­ly known some­one in their lives who was lost to sui­cide. Sui­cide pre­ven­tion is not about num­bers. Every per­son lost is tak­en very seri­ous­ly and we are focus­ing our efforts on pro­vid­ing tools to save lives.” The Navy pro­vides sailors with a vari­ety of options to com­bat sui­ci­dal thoughts such as com­mand chap­lains, Fleet and Fam­i­ly Ser­vice Cen­ters and com­mand med­ical facil­i­ties avail­able to assist and direct in times of need. 

Sui­cide inter­ven­tion ser­vices like the Nation­al Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion Life­line and the Amer­i­can Foun­da­tion for Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion also are avail­able to sailors. Obtain more infor­ma­tion and resources at or the Oper­a­tional Stress Con­trol con­tin­u­um at

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

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