Wiping out stigma of seeking help can reduce suicide

Since the release of the Department of Defense July 2012 suicide report, stories on suicide have been published almost daily. In the July 23 edition of Time Magazine, the article “The War on Suicide” said no program, outreach or initiative has worked in reducing the upsurge in Army suicides; Soldiers aren’t seeking care due to the stigma associated with mental illness, and no one knows why nothing works.

These types of comments are a common thread throughout the media circuit.
It’s fact that the military suicide rate now exceeds the U.S. national average and is highest in the Army, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions.
It may surprise you to know that the U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart isn’t immune to cases of suicide. In the past five years, there have been 36 attempts and/or direct suicidal statements, four of them successful (an active duty Soldier, an Army reservist, a contractor and a family member), according to USAG Stuttgart Provost Marshal officials. The numbers are alarming, but there are programs and initiatives that are showing promise. Recently, Dr. (Col.) Charles C. Engel, a DOD researcher, briefed the American Psychiatric Association on Re-Engineering Systems of Primary Care Treatment in the Military (Respect-Mil), a program that integrates emotional and primary care at military clinics.
Since the program’s implementation in 2007, about 63,000 Soldiers have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, two illnesses that contribute to suicide. From August 2009 to December 2010, 31,000 of these Soldiers showed a clinical reduction in PTSD severity scores. Engel attributed the trend to increased contact between service members and care coordinators.
Engel, the Respect-Mil program director at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, has also said that this model of care eases the stigma associated with behavioral health illnesses. The stigma of seeking mental health care is real,  but there are some leaders setting the example and speaking publicly about their own struggles: Gen. Carter Ham, Maj. Gen. David N. Blackledge, and Maj. Gen. Gary S. Patton. All three have sought counseling to overcome the emotional trauma of their time in the Iraq war. Even the garrison has a command policy that requires all commanders, senior enlisted leaders and directors at all levels to eliminate the stigma attached to service members who seek counseling. And yet, the stigma remains. I asked a colleague, an Army war veteran, why a command policy isn’t enough. This Soldier said: “If you think you can bury it away [traumatic wartime experiences] … you can’t. I didn’t trust the military programs for years. I feared losing benefits or not getting promoted … but I finally found someone I could trust, and I sought help. I don’t think my wartime nightmares will ever go away, but I know now how to channel the thoughts.”

DOD has implemented more than 100 programs designed to help reduce the stigma that mental illness causes. The Real Warriors Campaign is one of those programs and offers resources, to include video profile testimonies,  for the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, and family members. When it comes to suicide prevention training, military units in Stuttgart take it seriously. Leaders are engaged with Soldiers one-on-one,  conducting training on how to be vigilant so they (Soldiers or leaders) can pick up on the signals when a Soldier is having a problem or thoughts of suicide, according to Capt. Felix Castro, USAG Stuttgart Headquarters and Headquarters Company commander. A positive thread in the prevention of suicide is social connectedness. In 2011, the Stuttgart Army Substance Abuse Program began a new outreach initiative, Warrior Pride Challenge, to promote alcohol-free, adventure activities for service members, and in some cases, activities that include family members, too. This program is trending upward with favorable feedback. The Stuttgart garrison Mobilization and Deployment Program provides support to military spouses — linking them to their Family Readiness Groups and community support programs. These programs enhance problem-solving and coping skills and improve relationships, which supports mental and emotional well-being.

As the 2014 Afghanistan draw down continues, more service members will be back in garrison facing a world that has changed in their absence. The family downrange isn’t the same family a Soldier comes home to. “Seeking help, sooner rather than later, is the first step toward better health,” said Col. John Stack, USAG Stuttgart commander. We know the stigma to seeking help is contributing to the problem, so let’s stop dancing around this issue. It’s clear to me that it comes down to authentic leadership. It’s not a simple order to change the culture of a 237-year-old Army. However, if we had more leaders like Ham, Patton and Blackledge encouraging service members to seek help by being transparent about their own issues, there would be more muscle behind the punch. Let’s all take a stand. Suicide is one enemy that can’t be ignored.