Health Chief: Anyone May Have to Save a Life
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 16, 2011 Members of the military family take responsibility for each other, and that responsibility extends to saving lives that might otherwise end in suicide, a senior Defense Department official said today.
“Someone could show up at any time, in need. It’s not the job only of the mental health professionals … we’ve got to create a community that takes this issue seriously,” Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service during an interview here.
The suicide rate in the military services has risen overall during the past five years, though the Army reported a slight decrease in active-duty suicides and the rate among Marines fell 30 percent in 2010. The military in 2010 averaged 12.5 suicides per 100,000 members, according to DOD reports.
DOD is establishing a Suicide Prevention Overwatch Committee to “coordinate, synthesize [and] harmonize” department and service-specific programs aimed at preventing these deaths, Woodson said. The committee also will measure the programs’ outcomes to identify and promote best practices, he added.
The group will include service and combat arms representatives, DOD officials and medical care providers, he said.
Suicide is a “thorny and complex problem,” Woodson said, but exhaustive research has yielded some insight.
Some factors that increase the risk of suicide include alcohol or drug abuse, troubled relationships, and legal and financial difficulties, Woodson said. Programs are in place to assess and offer appropriate care, counseling or legal assistance to service members facing such circumstances, he said.
“What we know is that if we get individuals who have substance abuse problems … or histories of mental abuse or physical abuse, and get them to the right care, this can be preventative,” he said.
Woodson said research also shows common elements of successful suicide prevention programs.
Among those elements he listed increased suicide awareness among military community and family members -- including everyone from noncommissioned officers and front-line supervisors to military gym staff members -- who may notice behavior changes among regular patrons.
Successful programs provide access to qualified health professionals; offer a plan of action, such as the Army’s “Ask, Care, Escort” program that assists soldiers in aiding other soldiers potentially at risk of suicide; ensure at-risk people can’t access “lethal means” such as firearms; and provide follow-up care and assessment, Woodson said.
All of the military services have programs to help build resilience among their members, he noted.
“Building resilient families, building resilient service members who know how to cope with temporary stress, is very important,” he said.
All of those elements combine to form a wide-ranging strategy to assess risk and prevent suicide, he said.
Possibly the most important factor in preventing suicide risk from becoming reality is timely, qualified mental health care, Woodson said.
“What is heart-warming is that a number of leaders have … told their own personal stories and testimonies about difficulties after deployment, depression and the need to seek help,” he said.
Woodson said DOD is striving to instill a culture in which seeking help is a sign of strength, and policy changes are in place to ensure security clearances and other career factors are not affected by a service member seeking counseling.
“I think we’ve already begun to see the change,” he said.
There is help available, Woodson said, for service members struggling with depression or other issues that make them consider suicide.
“There are means of getting through any crises,” he said. “There are people available to help you. There are programs available to help you. We value your service. We value your life. We want to have all of our service members succeed and lead long, productive lives.”
That, he said, is what suicide prevention is all about.