COHEN: Ending the stigma

One week ago today was World Suicide Prevention Day. This year, the theme was “Stigma: A Major Barrier to Suicide Prevention.” And for one group disproportionately affected by suicide, this theme was especially timely.

In the US military, suicide rates have been steadily increasing over the last decade. In the Army alone, the suicide rate tripled from 2001 to 2012. The reason for some of these military suicides is relatively clear: among troops who fought in Iraq during the brutal period between 2004 to 2007, the suicide rate was nearly doubled, though direct combat experiences are not necessarily linked to suicide.

According to surveys, the reasons why active duty servicemembers and veterans consider suicide vary from combat trauma-related PTSD to romantic failure, long work hours, separation from family and friends, even drug abuse — all stressors that are especially relevant to those in the military.

The truly disheartening aspect of this problem is that it continues despite a concerted effort by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, to train soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to spot suicide warning signs. It also persists despite increased levels of support, from crisis intervention to long-term therapy for PTSD.

Why do suicide rates among veterans remain high despite the best efforts of the US government? It is not for lack of resources: suicide prevention and awareness trainings are mandatory across the board at the DOD, and a quick Google search of lifelines for veterans brings up hundreds of resources, many of them DOD-sponsored. The military is also taking a number of steps to reduce the likelihood of contributing factors. In 2008, for example, the DOD changed a question on security clearance forms that unintentionally discouraged applicants from seeking mental help for fear of losing their clearance. The Navy, for example, has shortened the hours when alcohol can be sold on base — no longer can a sailor buy between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., a dark time of night when the dark thoughts can enter the mind.

All branches should follow the Navy’s lead. The military could do more to crack down on unnecessary access to loaded guns (the key being unnecessary), since studies show that suicide is often a decision made from easy access. And if one good thing comes from our decade at war, perhaps it will be incredible advances in our knowledge of the brain. The DOD has made huge investments in brain research because of the high numbers of returning servicemembers with brain trauma — perhaps their advances will be part of the solution.

But the ultimate answer is that government policies alone cannot solve the problem — it takes all of society to clear the scourge of military suicide. This is where the theme of World Suicide Prevention Day 2013 becomes so important. Particularly in a military warrior culture, mental illness has for too long been considered a weakness. An attitude of man-up-machismo was the unstated undercurrent of military suicide prevention efforts. But that is fast-changing. Efforts begun during the Bush administration have been increased and enhanced by First Lady Michelle Obama’s and Second Lady Jill Biden’s Joining Forces initiative, which seeks to help find returning veterans good employment with private companies. And military officials, from the Commander-in-Chief down, have been working to undo the dangerous stigma associated with seeking help. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was explicit, saying that to seek mental health treatment is a “choice that embodies moral courage, honor and integrity.”

The military is well equipped to combat the stigma of seeking treatment for mental health. Underlying almost everything our military does is a sense of teamwork and esprit de corps. No servicemember — no teammate — should feel that they have nowhere to turn for help, or that asking for help is a sign of weakness. If the military works to extend the idea of teamwork to the realm of suicide prevention, not just in trainings but in practice, then the ugly rate of military suicide will decrease.

But this requires action from both the military and civilian worlds. It is not enough just to thank a soldier with a visible wound for his or her service — we must make the effort to seek out the warriors who face invisible internal battles. Writing letters, sending care packages, actively caring even after the Veterans Day parades have marched passed — these are all things everyone can do to make the transition home from war a little bit easier for our men and women in uniform. Doing something so simple and yet so selfless is a fitting tribute to the men and women who have served overseas. And you just might save a life.

Sam Cohen is a junior in Calhoun College. This column expresses his personal views only and not the views Yale, Yale NROTC, the Department of Defense or any other entity. Contact him at samson.cohen@yale.edu.

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