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Education, Personal Contact Key to Cutting Suicide Rate, Army Leader Says

By Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill
Special to American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., March 18, 2009 – Soldiers need to move a little closer into each other's personal space after deployments to help prevent problems that may lead to suicide, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel told Army National Guardsmen and others at a suicide prevention meeting.

“There’s a phenomenon today, … a little bit of reluctance to reach out and touch somebody, to get inside someone’s personal space,” Lt. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle said. “We have to help our junior-level leaders understand that in this particular dilemma, we have to get inside that space. We have to reach out and touch someone, and we have to be willing to intervene on their behalf in order to prevent the next suicide.”

Rochelle also said that ending a policy that excused citizen-soldiers from monthly drills for 90 days after deployment was a step in the right direction. While the policy was created with good intentions, the unintended effect was to reduce soldier's contact with others when they needed it most, he said.

Rochelle made his remarks March 16 to program managers, trainers, and support personnel from across the nation who attended three days of suicide prevention training here hosted by the Army National Guard’s Soldier Family Support and Services division.

Maj. Gen. James W. Nuttall, deputy director of the Army National Guard, said suicides in the military now surpass the suicide rate in the general population. The Army has the highest rate in the military, and the Army National Guard has the highest rate of the Army’s three components.

“It’s critical for us to get our arms around this,” Nuttall said.

Soldiers need to have contact with colleagues in their unit, and those in their chain of command need to be able to look them in the eye to determine if they might be having problems, Rochelle said.

“We all know that a senior or a subordinate needs to look every one of us in the eye within a period of time after redeployment – just do that gut-check, ‘Is everything going OK? Is everything all right?’” he said.

Leaders at all levels need to be educated in suicide warning signs, Rochelle said, especially at the company level and below. “Platoon sergeants, squad leaders, team leaders, company commanders and first sergeants are missing the signs,” he said.

The training focused on developing state suicide prevention programs that include intervention and something presenters call “postvention,” meaning responding to the aftermath of a completed or attempted suicide.

Drawing on a study conducted after a wave of suspected suicides at an Army post, Rochelle suggested other improvements:

-- More resources: “We don’t have enough behavioral help at the brigade level,” he said.

-- More counselors: “We can’t hire enough Army substance abuse counselors and … specialists to meet the demand,” he said.

Some specific challenges related to suicide haven’t changed through the years, Rochelle said. One study found that the average age of suicides in the military during World War II was 22 – the same as today, he said.

During World War II, “the likelihood increased with time in service,” he said. “Responsibilities, as they increase with time in service and grade, heightens the level of stigma associated with seeking help. That’s the same problem we are confronting today.”

Making it socially acceptable to get help is the No. 1 priority to reducing suicide, Rochelle said. “Our biggest challenge is reducing the stigma,” he said. A bright spot: Rochelle said he was encouraged by a visit to Afghanistan where he saw soldiers openly lining up to talk with a counselor after a mission.

Rochelle and his colleagues studied the facts surrounding 15 confirmed servicemember suicides. Some of what they found defied stereotypes:

-- Sixty percent had no deployment history. “That’s causing us to go back and ask some questions about the enlistment history – the behavioral health history – of new, junior-level individuals,” he said.

-- Relationships were a contributing factor in 75 percent of the cases. “That doesn’t mean that that was the major contributing factor. It may have been an aggravating factor – but it was a factor,” he said.

-- Half of the cases involved some unit integration or reintegration issues. “We all know how important that is,” he said. “In [the continental United States], it’s important. It’s doubly important for a junior enlisted soldier forward-deployed.”

-- Half the cases involved some substance abuse, with alcohol and prescription medication being the biggest problems. “It’s most especially alcohol,” he said.

That’s another case of history repeating itself, Rochelle noted. “There was a high, high correlation of alcohol abuse in the suicides from World War II,” he noted. “Very high.”

Soldiers need to be able to seek help with alcohol issues without fear, Rochelle said. “This is another area where we’re having a challenge reducing stigma,” he said.

During his stint as commanding general of U.S. Army Recruiting Command, Rochelle said, he lobbied to prevent past Ritalin use from being a disqualifying factor for recruitment. “There are too many people taking it,” he explained. But history may become a more important factor in recruitment decisions as the Army drives to slash the suicide rate, he said.

“We are bound and determined to lick this problem,” Rochelle said, urging local National Guard leaders to take initiative at the state level, because a local success could be picked up as a model by the entire Army.

He said reducing suicides involves three things: “One is removal of the stigma of seeking professional help, the stigma also associated with substance abuse; two, getting our junior level leaders [involved]; and, three, intervening.

Soldier Family Support and Services is the Army National Guard directorate’s newest division, created to improve the quality of life of citizen soldiers and their families by providing services that promote self-sufficiency, resiliency, well-being and prosperity, according to Erin Thede, division chief.

(Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill serves with the National Guard Bureau.)

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