Reform

DOD Takes a Public Health Approach to Suicide Prevention

Aug. 27, 2019 | BY David Vergun

The causes of suicide are complex, with contributing factors that can range from environmental to biological to social to psychological. And there is no one fix.

Karin A. Orvis, Ph.D.
Karin A. Orvis, Ph.D.
Karin A. Orvis, Ph.D.
Photo By: Monica King
VIRIN: 190828-D-ZZ999-003

So said the director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office today as she opened the 2019 Department of Veterans Affairs/Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Conference in Nashville, Tenn.

Woman speaks to an audience in a large hall with a large screen above her showing a close-up view.
Conference Group
Dr. Karin Orvis, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, speaks at the 2019 Department of Veterans Affairs/Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Conference in Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 27, 2019.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 190827-O-ZZ999-004

The Defense Department has taken a number of steps to address those factors, Dr. Karin Orvis said, focusing on three areas.

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The first, she said, is data surveillance and reporting. Beginning this year, DOD will publish an annual suicide report.

That first report will release calendar year 2018's suicide counts and rates for service members and provide data on suicide deaths among military family members from calendar year 2017, she said.

Regarding the data, "transparency and timeliness is of the utmost importance to us," Orvis said, adding that reliability and standardization of data are also important in compiling accurate reporting.

As for data over recent years, Orvis said, she's "disheartened that the trends are not going in the right direction for our military community."

We must do better," she said. "We have much more progress to make."

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The second area of DOD focus is program evaluation, Orvis said.

Program evaluation includes outcomes, not only in terms of suicide deaths and attempts, but also in leading indicators such as unit cohesion, help-seeking behaviors and reducing barriers to care, she explained.

The department is also looking at promising practices in the civilian community that have been demonstrated to reduce suicide. Those deemed effective are being started as pilot programs, with possible DOD-wide implementation, she said. For example, Orvis said, several pilot studies are now being conducted, including ones focused on problem solving and teaching emotional regulation skills and help-seeking.

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The third focus area is private and public collaboration.

"We can't act alone to prevent suicide," Orvis said, noting that DOD partners with other federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, academia and community organizations, looking at the best ways to support service members, veterans and their families.

For example, she said, DOD collaborates with National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention on areas such as help-seeking, hope and education for those in need.

Also, the department is partnering with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors for support of family members of a loved one whose death was by suicide.

A woman makes a speech from a stage.
Suicide Prevention Speech
Dr. Karin Orvis, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, speaks at the 2019 Department of Veterans Affairs/Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Conference in Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 27, 2019.
Photo By: DOD photo
VIRIN: 190828-D-ZZ999-002

The biggest collaborative efforts, she said, are with the VA and the Department of Homeland Security, focused especially on high-risk veterans who are transitioning out of the military.