Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, and this is Suicide Prevention Week. Recent reports from the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) show the number of U.S. soldiers who have died by their own hand is estimated to be greater than the number (6,460) who have died in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. About 18 veterans kill themselves each day. The loss of these dedicated men and women and the numbers of surviving loved ones they leave behind is truly shocking.
At the DOD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference in June, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta acknowledged both the challenge of, and the responsibility for, military suicide: “There are no easy answers here there are no quick fixes there are no simple solutions to the problem of suicide. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do more to prevent it from happening.”
For the Department of Defense, doing more has included addressing the recommendations contained in the 2010 report by the DOD Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces, including establishing a professionally staffed Suicide Prevention Office and enhancing its Military Crisis Line.
The military services also are doubling their efforts. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the Army’s vice chief of staff, characterizes suicide as “the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army” and has called for an Army-wide suicide “stand down” later this month to familiarize all members of the Army family with suicide prevention.
This Army-wide educational effort would have provided much-needed information for my dear friend Jennifer, a devoted mother who bravely struggles through exhaustion each day to raise four girls as an Army widow. The No. 1 issue that she would ask the Army to address is how to fully and respectfully “involve the family in how best to handle the fragile soldier.” She understands too clearly that any perceived “lack of concern can be lethal” and that “support from those closest is crucial.”
Jennifer and her girls lived through the initial shock of losing a devoted soldier and beloved husband and father thanks in large part to their closeness, sheer guts and the support of other military family survivors who were there to help them heal. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) offered them peer-based emotional support, casework assistance, connections to community-based care, and grief and trauma resources. The Military Suicide Survivor Seminars and Good Grief Camps provided a safe place where they were not stigmatized as members of a surviving family of death from suicide.
Stigma often marks these surviving families — as it did their service member. Those in uniform seek to avoid stigma by shunning the preventive services they so desperately need, while fear of the stigma of shame keeps their surviving family and friends from reaching out to healing “postvention” support.
The TAPS director of suicide education and support was all too familiar with the tragic consequences of stigma. Kim Ruocco’s metamorphosis from a suicide survivor to someone helping other survivors heal began tragically with the death of her husband five years ago. Like other Marines who do “whatever they can do to push those feelings down so they can still function as perceived warriors,” Kim’s husband went to lengths to avoid stigma until one day it was too late. “How do you tell two young boys that their dad made it back safely from Iraq after flying all these missions and then took his own life?”
Today, Kim can identify many factors that contribute to a service member taking his or her own life, but stigma continues to be a real and primary one. The fear that getting help will stigmatize their military career and cause them to lose the respect they have worked so hard to earn is real. “Service members often wait until their pain is intolerable and their worlds are falling apart before they seek help, and then they often are so very sick,” she said
According to the American Association of Suicidology, every 14 minutes one person in the United States — military, veteran and/or civilian — will complete a suicide. During this important week of suicide prevention, it’s imperative for us to continue to remove any and all barriers — especially stigma — that limit access to everyone who needs the support that helps hurting heal.
Lynda C. Davis is the former deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy.