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Guard, Reserve Observe Suicide Prevention Month

By T.D. Jackson
Special to American Forces Press Service

CAMP ATTERBURY, Ind., Sept. 17, 2008 – Sergeant Smith has started coming to work late.

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In the behavioral health office at Camp Atterbury, Ind., Dr. Marsha Rockey’s job consists of assisting soldiers who may need psychological help. Soldiers can make an appointment or just walk in. U.S. Army photo by T.D. Jackson

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The usually punctual, upbeat soldier has not been on time for two weeks straight, and he seems withdrawn and distracted. His co-workers don’t want to pry, but they know he’s just ended a two-year relationship with his girlfriend and he took the breakup pretty badly.

On top of that, his unit got the word that in six months they will be deploying to Afghanistan again. Yesterday Sergeant Smith gave away an entire binder of CDs to another soldier, claiming he didn’t have use for them any more. During his lunch breaks, he sits at his desk with headphones on and writes letters to various people in his family.

If someone you know displays this type of behavior, Army Chaplain (Maj.) Douglas Brown said, you may need to ask the person if everything is OK.

“When someone is thinking about hurting themselves, they often show signs of odd behavior,” said Brown, the post deputy chaplain, “[such as] not talking as much, withdrawing from former pleasures, giving away possessions.”

The Army observed National Suicide Prevention Week last week, and from Sept. 6 through Oct. 5 the Army National Guard and Army Reserve are observing Suicide Prevention Month. The Army is encouraging soldiers to watch out for their battle buddies, and as one way to encourage intervention, they’re promoting the “ACE” – Ask, Care, Escort – concept, and have printed up wallet-size cards to explain it to soldiers:

-- Ask your buddy the question directly: Are you thinking about killing yourself?

-- Care for your buddy by listening, staying calm and removing harmful items from his/her possession.

-- Escort your buddy to someone within your chain of command, the chaplain or a behavioral health professional.

The chaplain emphasized that if servicemember have mentioned hurting themselves, you do not leave them alone. “Recognize if you’re with them, you’ve just bought them some time,” he said.

The chaplain said one of the misconceptions people have about suicide is that people don’t mean it when they talk about killing themselves.

“If someone is despondent enough to say it, it’s serious,” Brown said. “You might think that a [suicidal] person has so much to live for, but they could have a change in their [military] orders, a change in their relationships or their health. … You never know what’s taking place in a person’s thoughts,” he said.

Brown said suicidal people tend to have things out of perspective, which would explain why some situations would seem earth-shattering.

“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” he said. “Their circumstances can change. God is able, no matter what the circumstance.”

Dr. Marsha Rockey, a psychologist in the behavioral health office here, said that most of the time a soldier is seen immediately when he or she comes in.

“The first thing we do is figure out how to keep them safe and how to get them the help they need,” she said, “so they don’t feel like hurting themselves is the only solution.”

Rockey said when troops come to see her, she and the person come up with a safety plan where they find someone to stay with the servicemember at all times and get the servicemember to give up the means of self-injury.

She said one mistaken belief that people have about suicide is that there’s no stopping a person who decides to do it. “Most people don’t want to die; they just want help,” Rockey said. “They just don’t want to be in pain, whether that’s psychological or physical pain.”

Rockey said one way a buddy can help is by talking to the person in a direct manner.

“Don’t be afraid to ask, ‘Have you thought about killing yourself?’ ” she said. “You asking about it is not going to make it worse.” If the person answers “yes,” she said, tell them you will help them, remind them that you care and take them somewhere to get help.

“And stay with them!” Rockey added.

In otherwise healthy people, suicidal thoughts often are brought about by a sudden, unexpected change in life circumstances, Rockey said, noting that 25 percent of the population – although not suicidal – experiences a major depressive episode in their lives.

“One out of four people have issues that cause significant depression,” she said. “It’s almost normal to find [certain situations] overwhelming. It’s not a sign that you’re weird or defective.”

Rockey said it’s just not that unusual to feel stressed out, especially given the unique stressors of military service. However, servicemembers who believe they have serious mental health concerns should not delay treatment for mental health illnesses such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, as these conditions can worsen and lead to suicide.

Brian Altman, acting chief operating officer for Suicide Prevention Action Network USA, wrote that military personnel often hesitate to seek help for these conditions for fear that it will harm their careers or cause others to think they are weak.

“Consulting a health care professional for a mental health condition does not preclude an individual from obtaining a security clearance,” he wrote. “Men and women of the military need to know that seeking help is a sign of strength.”

(T.D. Jackson works in the Camp Atterbury Public Affairs Office.)

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Related Articles:
With Rising Suicide Rates, Army Urges Soldiers to Help One Another

Click photo for screen-resolution imageDr. Marsha Rockey hands a soldier reading material about suicide prevention. The tip sheets include information about warning signs of suicide and resources for people with mental health concerns. U.S. Army photo by T.D. Jackson  
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