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Suicide Prevention: No Soldier Stands Alone

Sep 05, 2008
BY By Heather Graham

At Fort Hood and Armywide, some Soldiers are waging a war outside of the theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan. These Soldiers are battling depression, stress, medical and relationship problems, all of which are the leading causes of suicide.

It is a battle Soldiers do not have to lose because there is a force ready to help in the form of unit command, social workers, medical and psychological professionals, helping agencies and — likely the first line of defense – the Soldier’s own battle buddies.

That’s the concept behind the Army’s Suicide Prevention Week’s theme this year “Shoulder-to-Shoulder – no Soldier stands alone.” Suicide Prevention Week is Sept. 7-13 and the theme conveys the idea that Soldiers are stronger together, especially when times are tough.

Soldiers relate best to those with shared experiences and battle buddies count on each other in combat as well as in garrison. Recurrent deployments, stress increases, prolonged periods of separation and horrific conditions in theater are difficult to explain to Family members and civilian friends.

For that reason, Soldiers continue to lean on and expect help from their peers. To be prepared to help, Soldiers and leaders need to recognize depression and know risk factors and warning signs of suicide.

“Be cognizant of what’s going on with your battle buddy,” Lt. Col. Ben Phillips, chief, Behavioral Health at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, said. “They’re counting on us. We can’t just wash it under the table.” Phillips urges Soldiers to listen to each other and pay attention to any red flags or disturbing trends, but cautions that professionals should perform treatment.

“Realize you’re not a mental health expert,” Phillips said. He suggested Soldiers “lend a soft ear,” and then escort the depressed Soldier for treatment. “Ensure they’re safe. Safety is the primary key,” he said.

“Do not leave them alone.” Since the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism, the Army has lost the equivalent of an entire battalion task force, more than 580 Soldiers, according to Sergeant Major of the Army Kenneth Preston.

Suicide is the fourth leading manner of death for Soldiers, behind hostile fire, accidents and illness, Preston stated in the Army Suicide Prevention Program guide. The Army has seen a recent increase in suicides.

In 2007, there was a 21 percent increase over the previous year and, although 2008 figures are not complete, it appears the trend is continuing. Soldiers operate in austere conditions and must perform tasks and see things no one ever should. They shoulder the hopes, expectations and freedoms of all Americans and others around the world.

They are warriors who volunteer to do what others cannot. With all they can and do handle, Soldiers sometimes find themselves experiencing relationship problems, depression, severe, prolonged,or perceived unmanageable stress, serious medical problems and significant loss.

“We all feel anxious and overwhelmed from time-to-time,” Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, III Corps and Fort Hood commander said in his Aug. 7 (Fort Hood Sentinel) column. “However, suicide and suicidal behavior is never a normal response to stress. If you are suicidal or think someone you know is suicidal, help is available.”

From chaplains to medical services and hotlines and Web sites, resources and services are available to help. Seeking help is no longer as taboo or stigmatized as it was in the past. As the war continues, the stigma attached to depression is removed, Phillips said.

“Soldiers are seeing their buddies seek and receive treatment,” Phillips said. In most cases, confidentiality is so high the Soldier’s command is not even notified a Soldier sought mental health help. “Typically, the Soldier’s command is not notified, unless there is a safety or deployment issue,” Phillips said.

For Soldiers who choose not to talk to friends or prefer another avenue of one-on-one help, battalion chaplains are another venue for assistance and guidance. “We’re reaching out,” Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Marvin Luckie, chief, Department of Ministry and Pastoral Care at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, said.

Luckie knows the stresses faced by Soldiers and said a chaplain can act as a sounding board in a non-threatening way. Armed with educational materials, resources and experience, chaplains can offer advice, direction or simply an understanding ear.

The discussions do not have to be denominational or even spiritual. Luckie said recurrent deployments and, for new Soldiers, adjusting to Army life can be trying experiences for anyone. Like everyone else, Soldiers sometimes need a break. “(Soldiers) too need to be recharged,” Luckie said.

Fort Hood has an active Behavioral Health Department at CRDAMC to help Soldiers recharge and manage depression. The good news is Soldiers are seeking help. Phillips said his department sees a lot of walk-ins and referrals. The medical center offers in-patient and out-patient mental health services to Soldiers.

Currently, there are eight beds in the in-patient unit, but Phillips said that number is expected to increase to 12 beds in November. In addition, the Resilience and Restoration Center provides outpatient mental health services to Soldiers.

Warrior Combat Stress Reset Program, a two-week intensive outpatient program that was developed at Fort Hood, uses various intensive therapies and operates on a continuous cycle providing mental health care for eight to ten Soldiers.

Soldiers in the program are assigned to that program for the two-week period. Hotlines and Web sites are available as well and many use Military One Source to gain immediate access to counseling.

The key is that Soldiers are able to talk when they need to, Phillips said. Whatever the method, Soldiers experiencing risk factors for suicide need immediate help. It is not a battle anyone needs to fight alone because there is an Army standing shoulder-to-shoulder to help.

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