Update on Military Suicide Prevention

April 04, 2013

News Type:  Director's Corner
Author:  Jerry Reed, PhD, MSW, SPRC Project Director, Education Development Center, Inc

On March 21, I had the privilege of testifying before Congress during an Update on Military Suicide Prevention called by the Subcommittee on Military Personnel of the House Armed Services Committee. I was on a panel that included Jacqueline Garrick, who is the acting director of the DoD’s Suicide Prevention Office and a member of the SPRC Steering Committee, as well as representatives from each branch of the nation’s armed forces. I was pleased to see the obvious concern of the subcommittee regarding this topic.

Jacqueline Garrick’s testimony focused on the history and activities of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office. Military personnel leaders from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps then presented reports on suicide prevention activities in their respective branches of the armed forces. My testimony provided a comparison and contrast of the problem of suicide in the military with that of similar-aged civilians and veterans. I tried to emphasize that suicide prevention in the military should be informed by what we’ve learned in the general population by following the public health approach to suicide prevention, and I highlighted many of the tactics that have proven successful, including:

  • Identifying and using evidence-based practices
  • Ensuring a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention
  • Creating a culture that values help-seeking, focuses on risk and protective factors, and promotes continuity of care
  • Changing the way we talk about suicide to include stories of hope and resilience, including information on what we are doing to prevent suicide, and highlighting stories of successful efforts already underway

I also stressed the importance of ensuring a team effort, following a carefully developed comprehensive plan, and planning how to sustain efforts for the long term.

Another perspective I tried to contribute is that “suicide is not just a defense or veteran problem, it is an American problem.” The rates and patterns of suicide in the military are in many respects very similar to those in the population as a whole. Historically, the rate of suicide in the military has been lower than that of a comparable civilian population—although there are indications that this is changing. We need to tease out the similarities and differences between suicide in the military and civilian populations and learn how the prevention experiences in each setting can inform prevention efforts in the other.

From my perspective, this opportunity demonstrated the commitment of Congress, the Department of Defense, and the branches of the armed services to prevent suicide among military personnel, as well as the commitment of our nation to sustain the battle against suicide in both the military and civilian sectors. It’s imperative that our efforts be conducted collaboratively. You can view the webcast of  these hearings and download my full written testimony, as well as the full written testimony submitted by panel members.