Army Creates Suicide Prevention Task Force During ‘Stand Down’
By Gary Sheftick
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 6, 2009 The Army has created a suicide prevention task force as part of its month-long “stand-down” to address suicides among soldiers, the service’s vice chief of staff said yesterday.
Maj. Gen. Colleen McGuire, the Army’s director of senior leader development, has been selected to head up the task force, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli told military bloggers and online journalists at a Blogger’s Roundtable hosted by the Defense Media Activity.
“Suicide is a multi-dimensional problem and, as such, will take a multi-disciplinary approach to dealing with it,” Chiarelli said.
In keeping with the complexity of the problem, the task force will have members from a range of staff sections and functional areas. “My charter is ... to look across all disciplines so… commander[s] can have a menu of tools and training programs and experts and know how to best deploy them,” McGuire said.
The task force will include representatives from the Army’s offices of personnel and human resources, the provost marshal’s office, and the medical department, and it will coordinate closely with the chief of chaplains, Lt. Col. Leo Ruth, a task force member, said in an interview with Army News Service.
The task force will examine all of the Army’s recent suicides and try to find commonalities, Ruth said.
“The whole idea ... is to identify a common theme,” he said. “We may not find a trend,” but he added that the task force “owed it to leadership” to examine demographics such as age and deployment history to see if any trends exist.
The task force will report to Secretary of the Army Pete Geren. Its recommendations first will be looked at by a senior officer steering group, Ruth explained. The ultimate product, he said, will be a suicide prevention campaign plan.
The task force will only form the genesis of the campaign plan, Ruth said, stressing that the task force is a temporary organization. The Army also has partnered with the National Institute of Mental Health for a long-range study to determine the causes of suicide in the Army.
An Armywide “stand down” for suicide prevention training continues through March 15 whereby commands and individual units take part in four-hour training sessions on how to recognize and try to prevent suicides.
The centerpiece of the training is an interactive video called “Beyond the Front” that Chiarelli told online journalists is “some of the best facilitation for training that I’ve seen in 36 years in the Army.” He said the purpose of the video is to reduce the stigma of seeking help, to teach soldiers to recognize the signs of suicide and how to provide help to a buddy.
It’s especially important for junior officers and noncommissioned officers to train with the video and be able to offer intervention to soldiers at risk, Chiarelli said.
The stand-down will be followed by a “chain” teaching program, which is intended to be leader-led training, cascaded across the entire service and completed by July 15.
“Unfortunately, suicide is touching every segment of our force -- active, reserve and National Guard, officer and enlisted, deployed and non-deployed, and yet-to-be-deployed,” Chiarelli said.
In the last fiscal year, 138 soldiers committed suicide, Chiarelli said, and five additional cases are being reviewed as possible suicides. In January, 12 soldiers committed suicide with another 12 cases under review. In February, two soldiers committed suicide and another 16 cases are being reviewed.
“As a soldier and a leader, I’m deeply saddened every time a soldier loses his or her life,” Chiarelli said, “but it’s especially troubling when a soldier commits suicide.”
About a third of those soldiers were deployed, Chiarelli said. Another third had returned from a deployment, and the last third had never deployed.
“The rational person might think, the more deployments, the more likely you are to commit suicide,” Chiarelli said. “But we saw just the opposite.”
“A certain resiliency” seems to grow in soldiers that have completed multiple deployments, he said.
Chiarelli said the task force will look across multiple disciplines – from personnel to medical – to try and discern the root causes of suicide and synchronize solutions.
There’s no single solution to the problem, he said, characterizing it as “very, very complicated.”
About half of the soldiers who committed suicide last year sought treatment from mental-health care providers, Chiarelli said.
Only 5.4 percent of the suicide victims had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, said Col. Elspeth C. Ritchie, a psychiatrist who serves as director of strategic communications for the Army Medical Department. She said 17 percent had problems with substance abuse.
At least 60 percent of those who committed suicide had relationship problems, said Col. Thomas Languirand of Army G-1. Some also had compounded legal problems, financial problems, or work problems, he said.
On Wednesday, Chiarelli participated in a two-hour video teleconference with commanders across the Army whose units have been affected by suicides. Commanders in Iraq, Korea and other locations shared feedback. The video teleconference is to be followed by a written report.
Also on Wednesday, Chiarelli spoke to more than 100 chaplains from across the Army who gathered for a suicide-prevention “summit” meeting.
Many of the chaplains came from brigade level and lower and deal with soldier problems on a daily basis, said Col. Dave Reese, director of ministry initiatives for the Army’s Chief of Chaplains Office, and a planner of the summit.
Reese said the chaplains broke into four groups to discuss suicide prevention across four domains: life skills training, intervention and crises, fostering hope, and engaging grief and recovery. The initiatives will eventually comprise what Reese termed a renewed “holistic approach” to suicide prevention for chaplains.
(Gary Sheftick writes for the Army News Service).