One Team, One Fight: Learning from Military Suicide Prevention

March 02, 2011

News Type:  Director's Corner
Author:  Jerry Reed

As someone who served in the U.S. Navy many years ago and spent 15 years as Department of the Army civilian employee with programs supporting soliders and families…

I was pleased and not surprised to find out that the upcoming Department of Defense/Veterans Administration Annual Suicide Prevention Conference has reached maximum capacity.   In my experience, there is a strong Defense and VA culture of caring for those who serve and commitment and support to do what it takes to address the needs of our military men and women.

For those who don’t know the military culture, you may not be aware of how deep the commitment to serve extends throughout the armed forces.  You see it in the leadership, the professionals and staff who serve our military and in the military personnel and their families. Once you are a part of this culture and community, you never forget what it means. I think the warrior ethos, which states “leave no fallen comrade behind,” pretty much says it all. No matter what each individual’s views about war may be, our nation has indisputable respect, compassion and support for the men and women who serve, those who have served, and their families. As an American, I’m very proud to see this level of respect. I think it’s a large reason why this annual conference is always filled to capacity.

For the years I’ve been in the field of suicide prevention, a field I joined after my service to the Armed Forces, I’ve tried to find ways to bring what we know about the prevention of suicide to the military services and the VA, particularly with reports of rising suicide death rates among active duty military and veterans. Knowing from my own experience that part of the military culture often suggests that military personnel try to solve challenges within their own ranks, finding the right way to collaborate and partner with our colleagues at VA and DoD has been a constant desire. Thankfully, as our field evolves, more and more the opportunities to work together are unfolding. 

Suicide is not just a challenge for the military and the veteran community; it is a challenge for the American community. The tragedy of suicide affects all communities, both those whose residents wear a uniform and those whose residents are clothed in civilian attire. What works in communities outside the gates of the installation, more than likely should work within the gates of the installation. What we are learning by building collaborative and multi-disciplinary responses in our neighborhoods throughout the country are indeed the same responses that are needed on our military installations. In fact, many of these solutions may be even more likely to succeed on a military installation than in our home communities because of the tight-knit and structured nature of our military communities.

I’d like to highlight some examples of progress and possibility:

 The Air Force Suicide Prevention Program, on SAMHSA’s National Registry of Evidenced-Based Programs and Practices (NREPP), is a population-oriented approach to reducing the risk of suicide. The Air Force implemented 11 initiatives aimed at strengthening social support, promoting development of coping skills and changing policies and norms to encourage effective help-seeking behaviors. Results suggest that personnel exposed to the program experienced a 33% reduction of risk of committing suicide compared with personnel prior to implementation. Additionally, there were reductions of risk for moderate and severe family violence, homicide and accidental death.  

The Secretary of Defense Task Force “to examine matters relating to the prevention of suicide by members of the Armed Forces.” Fourteen appointed members represented a mixture of both DoD and non-DoD professionals with a variety of expertise. This kind of collaboration only strengthens our approach, which ultimately benefits the men and women who serve. You can read the Task Force’s outstanding report here.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates joining Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and others to launch the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention this past September, representing another great step in our journey of working together. Launching this public-private partnership with Secretary of the Army John McHugh serving as public sector co-chair is an amazing step in the right direction. Click here to see a video of the launch.

It is no longer a question for me as to whether and when our field will work with our colleagues involved with the DoD/VA suicide prevention efforts, but more a question of how will we work together and on which projects can we collaborate to end the tragedy of suicide in our nation and among the men and women who serve our nation.  We have much to learn from our colleagues in DoD and VA and we have much to share with them as well. I, for one, am gratified that we are coming together and approaching the challenge of suicide with an attitude of “one team with one fight.” I am looking forward to the conference in Boston and working with many of you and our colleagues in DoD and VA. I know that by doing so, we will ensure the men and women who serve this nation on our behalf will have what they need to address the invisible wounds of military service should they need our support when they return home. I am equally confident that what we will learn from our DoD/VA colleagues will benefit our suicide prevention efforts in communities across the nation.

The Department of Defense/Veterans Administration Suicide Prevention Conference will be held in Boston, Massachusetts March 14-17, 2011. View the conference agenda here.