Officials Uphold Commitment to Suicide Prevention Solutions
By Amaani Lyle
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 21, 2013 A panel of Defense Department and service officials told Congress today their efforts to address military suicides will persist.
Jacqueline Garrick, acting director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, told the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel subcommittee the service member suicide rate had increased from 10.3 to 18.3 per 100,000.
For 2010, Garrick said, the U.S. suicide rate for males, ages 17 to 60 – an age demographic that best matches the armed forces -- was 25.1 per 100,000, which rose from 21.8 per 100,000 in 2001.
“DOD fervently believes that every one life lost to suicide is one too many, and prevention is everybody’s responsibility,” she said. “This fight will take enormous collective action and the implementation of proven and effective initiatives.”
Garrick and service representatives outlined how their programs incorporate the latest research and information on suicide prevention and how leaders are tackling the problem.
“While physical injuries may be easier to see, there are many invisible wounds such as depression, anxiety [and] post-traumatic stress that also take a significant toll on our service members,” said Lt. Gen. Howard B. Bromberg, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel. “ … Suicidal behavior is an urgent national problem that affects all Americans across all dimensions of society, including those who have chosen to serve the nation.”
DOD officials saw leveling in suicide rates for 2010 and 2011, Garrick told the House panel, but they expect an increase in the suicide rate for 2012 upon the completion of investigations and final determinations of manner of death.
Defense Department officials have closely tracked every suicide and attempt since 2008, she said, and trends indicate the majority were enlisted Caucasian males below age 29 who had a high school education.
In some cases, she added, relationship, legal or financial issues were present, and in many cases, service members used firearms and died at home.
They did not communicate their intent, nor did they have known behavioral health histories, she said.
“Less than half had deployed, and few were involved in combat,” Garrick said, explaining that nonfatal suicide attempters were similar demographically to those who died; however, they primarily used drugs and had at least one documented behavioral health disorder.
Garrick noted that a DOD task force report made 76 recommendations, the first establishing the Defense Suicide Prevention Office to oversee all strategic development implementation, standardization and evaluation of DOD suicide and resilience activities.
“A general officer steering committee established priority groups on data, stigma, lethal means, investigations, research and evaluations, and the department has made significant strides,” she said.
The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also created a suicide repository dating back to 1979, Garrick said, so DOD officials now can affirm military service for the CDC, enhancing its ability to track active duty, Guard and reserve service member deaths overseas.
“This will enhance our research, longitudinal studies and population health surveillance,” she said. “The program evaluation approach tracks requirements [and] funding, and will unite efficiency measures with effectiveness.”
Efforts also include training evaluation to develop core competencies for peer, command, clinical and pastoral requirements, she said.
Eliminating the stigma that some service members or families associate with seeking help remains a critical aspect of preventing suicide, Garrick said. DOD and VA are implementing a presidential executive order in part through a 12-month, help-seeking “Stand By Them” campaign to encourage service members, veterans and their families to reach the military crisis line by phone or online, she added.
The resource is now available in the United States and Europe and at larger bases in Afghanistan, she said, and will expand to Japan and South Korea. Where it’s not available, medics have been trained to initiate a peer support call line, she said.
“Since service members often believe that seeking care is career-ending, training is key,” Garrick said. “In reality, denials and revocations involving mental health are less than 1 percent. Therefore, service members must understand that seeking help is a sign of strength and … does not jeopardize their clearances.”
Officials also conduct debriefings with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors on factors leading up to a service member’s death as reported by the families. “This dialogue builds a frame of reference that the DOD [Suicide Event Report] alone does not provide,” Garrick said.
DOD also is clarifying the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2013, which authorizes mental health professionals and commanders to inquire about privately owned firearms, ammunition and other weapons, she said.
Mental health professionals, Garrick reported, have developed a family safety curriculum with the Yellow Ribbon reintegration program and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, which have distributed more than 75,000 gun locks.
In addition, improved access to quality of care with behavioral health providers embedded at the unit level will be among the Defense Department’s top priorities, she said.
And because some suicide and attempts are associated with prescriptions, Garrick said, DOD began a drug take-back study, allowing beneficiaries to return unused medications in compliance with Drug Enforcement Agency rules. The department also has developed a research plan and created teams to translate findings from studies into policies and practices, she added, partnering with nonprofit organizations, universities and others to assess practices and share lessons learned in family and peer support.
Garrick also noted the expansion of “Partners in Care,” a chaplain program in which faith-based organizations provide support to Guard and reserve service members.
In addition to exploring therapeutic sentencing techniques for military justice proceedings in veterans’ treatment courts, DOD officials have teamed with Action Alliance and VA on suicide prevention strategy to ensure crisis material is incorporated into pre-separation counseling and transition briefings.
“DOD remains optimistic that it will find better solutions that will save more lives,” Garrick said.