Good Grief: The Army’s “Suicide Prevention” Mission

November 19, 2009 at 11:08 AM 4 comments

During my daily perusal of yesterday, I came across yet another story about the high rate of suicide in the military – specifically, the Army. This year, the number of suicides has exceeded last year’s record-breaking year. This is not a record you want to break. We frequently hear stories of soldiers committing suicide – both here (in garrison) and while deployed. Army programs are severely lacking in productive ways to help soldiers cope with depression, anxiety, PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and other psychological issues.

John and I have frequently talked about how the Army’s campaigns to “tell someone if you feel like killing yourself” are far from effective. Come on now, who is really going to do that? Maybe 1 out of 10 people. I don’t know. I pulled that out of thin air. But really, it’s unlikely that many people would walk up to someone – especially if they’re already a loner or feel on the outside – and say “hey, I am feeling down and think I might kill myself.”

Additionally, the Army appears to only be treating the symptoms – not the problem. As John has said “the solution the army has come up with to reduce suicides is something like giving morphine to someone with a sucking chest wound. It might make them feel a little better but it does nothing to treat the real problem. The current anti-suicide campaigns have little to do with how to prevent soldiers from becoming suicidal, but rather how to stop a suicidal soldier from doing the deed.”


What makes matters worse is what the Army vice chief of staff, General Peter Chiarelli, said in this CNN article (excuse me while I quote quite a bit):

Since March, the Army has implemented numerous programs and policies in an attempt to quickly slow the rate. Programs range from a suicide prevention task force to a day off from official duties to focus on suicide prevention. The service has implemented what it calls a Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program, giving every soldier a mental assessment twice a year in the same style the Army tests soldiers for fitness.

“It gives the same emphasis to psychological, emotional and mental strength that we have previously given to physical strength,” Chiarelli said.

The Army also has tested a program that gave mental-health evaluations to a group soldiers returning from the war zone. Some were treated face-to-face with mental-health providers while others were treated online by providers.

Chiarelli said the initial results were promising, and doctors said they could have great success treating patients online.

The test seems to give the Army some answers on how to treat the variety of soldiers from young to old.

“Younger soldiers prefer the online method of evaluation more than they do the face-to-face, and older soldiers — some of you might not find this so surprising — find face-to-face more to their liking,” according to the general.

Um. Are you kidding me? Online mental health assessments? Whose idea was this? And how can anyone believe that an online health assessment is worth anything toward helping someone cope with feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of suicide. Who is going to admit to an online computer screen – anymore than a co-worker – that they aren’t feeling too well?

I suppose the next question is “well, Sarah, do you have a better idea?”

Sort of. First, let’s not call them suicide prevention programs. That makes people think they’re lame. They shouldn’t be lame.

How about if the Army encouraged units to have small groups consisting of 5 soldiers a piece that met together to hang out, enjoy life, fellowship, be a community? I know, it sounds silly. People may say “but I do that anyway.” It’s not about you. It’s about people who don’t get out, have friends to show them that life is in fact good, that life is worth living. Let’s build on that idea – the idea of developing a stronger community bond and being intentional about it – and move forward with life together. I believe a solution like this would help treat both the symptoms and the root problem.

Does anyone else have ideas? I’d love to hear them.

I hesitate to include this in my post, but it, too, has been bothering me. Does CNN not have any copy editors? I cannot count the number of times I have seen blatant errors in their online reporting. I even submitted feedback yesterday on the article referenced in this post, because there’s an obvious error. 24 hours later, it still has not been fixed.


Entry filed under: Thoughts. Tags: , , , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Amanda  |  November 19, 2009 at 4:31 PM

    Wow. What a good post. I agree that CNN is NOT my favorite site because I just don’t think they are reliable either.

    I agree that labeling it all “suicide prevention” is probably a detriment. I love your idea of providing a community. I think that it’s extremely important because a therapist isn’t going to know what the soldiers go through but fellow soldiers do. And while many soldiers are lucky to have family support, some don’t. Can you imagine going through it all alone? I’m curious to see if anyone else has thoughts or ideas.

    • 2. osarah  |  November 20, 2009 at 2:05 PM

      Thank you so much for commenting!

      And no, I can’t imagine going through it all alone. I really hope that someone with some authority in the Army can make truly positive and effective changes to start helping soldiers and their families deal with this.

  • 3. Clare  |  November 20, 2009 at 5:55 PM

    I think your idea is really good – providing more opportunities for soldiers to feel part of a community that is separate from their work is important I think.

    In college we had a “block rep” system, kind of like an RA I guess, but the block rep didn’t live in the dorms or organize big events or anything (that was done separately). The block rep would stop by the dorms every week or couple of weeks, sometimes just for a cup of tea and a chat. sometimes with pizza. sometimes they’d plan a happy hour or similar informal activity. The groups they visited were around 30 people, but usually it was 10 at a time, or one on one visits. When I was a rep I found that I developed relationships with each of my freshmen that were so different from each other. Some would talk to me as a friend, others would come to me as an advisor, others just saw me as a source of information about campus. The idea was (and I think it worked) that if any of these kids had a serious issue (and a few of them did at various times in the two years I acted as a rep) that they had someone closer to them than a professor or generic school counsellor that they would hopefully feel comfortable talking to. I don’t know much about the army but if there was a way there could be some kind of system similar to that I think it would help.

    • 4. osarah  |  November 23, 2009 at 8:42 PM

      I really like that idea. I actually brought it up with an officer in John’s office today. Thanks, Clare!


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