Targeting Suicide

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By Joe LaFave

The National Guard has the highest suicide rate in the military, according to the Defense Department’s 2018 Annual Suicide Report released Sept. 26.

In calendar year 2018, 541 service members died by their own hand: 325 in the active components, 135 in the National Guard (118 Army Guard, 17 Air Guard) and 81 in the Reserves. The figures dwarf  the  number  of  personnel  who died at the hands of the enemy or in accidents overseas last year.

But the report puts more stock in suicide rate than the actual counts. The Guard rate in 2018 was about 30.6 self-inflict-ed deaths per 100,000 service members (35.3 in the Army Guard alone), well above the active component’s 24.8 and the Reserve’s 22.9 per 100,000, and even higher than the steadily increasing civilian rate when adjusted for age and gender.

The Guard rate has topped the military’s three components each of the last three years.

In response, officials in the National Guard Bureau and the states are looking for new ways to make more help available and to make troops feel more comfortable coming forward and getting that help. In the Guard, they say, both are a challenge.

“People sometimes make assumptions that because someone’s in uniform, they have all of the same access to all of the services that an active member would have,” says Capt. Matthew Kleiman, a U.S. Public Health Service officer and the principal adviser to the NGB chief. “For Guard members, that’s not always true.”

Part of Kleiman’s job is overseeing his office’s innovation incubator, which evaluates and potentially funds state-specific initiatives to improve mental health. NGB is also studying the issue by looking over data in search of trends and gaps in services.

He says it is all part of taking a decentralized approach in combating suicides.

“To address some of these issues is to initiate programs that look at this through a local lens, and recognizing [the NGB] is not going to have all the answers [that] impact the 450,000 men and women across the 54 states, territories [and the District of Columbia],” he says.

It's another thing when you can look across the table and have a deep conversation with somebody. —Brig. Gen. Lawrence Schloegl, Michigan's assistant adjutant general-Army

THE AIR FORCE used a page out of the same book this summer. Alarmed by rising suicide numbers, Gen. David L. Goldfein, the chief of staff, ordered every wing in the Air Force to take a one-day operational pause and discuss the problem at all levels.

He didn’t tell wings what day to take nor did he offer a syllabus. Goldfein just wanted airmen to gather and talk without the pressure of duty obligations.

In Belle Chasse, Louisiana, just outside New Orleans, the 159th Fighter Wing’s “stand down” provided airmen a chance to “check in with each other” on mental health, says Mike Miller, the unit’s director of psychological health (DPH).

Louisiana Air Guardsmen broke into small groups, each led by a trained airman or officer. Each group leaders’ job was to foster conversations and present examples of how seeking mental health help is beneficial.

Everybody wore civilian clothes and heard from the family of an airman lost to suicide. Miller says he believes the event has brought the entire wing closer together.

Earlier this year, the 159th was included on a list of Air Guard units seen as being “the most high risk” for suicides. Miller says the wing’s challenges stem from a high operational tempo and the low incomes prevalent in the New Orleans area.

He says the conditions make simply being available a big part of his job.

“I just had 300 deployers come back from  Guam,” he says. “You  can set up a table in the back corner with all the suicide prevention stuff, all the family readiness stuff you want and that’s great, and maybe you’ll have 10 people wander over. But if I’m out there throwing bags to unload the plane, all my 300 airmen are going to see Mike the DPH throwing bags. To me, that’s better program outreach.”

WITH UNITS FAR MORE DISPERSED, outreach is more of a challenge in the Army Guard, which contributes to why the suicide problem may be so much greater, Kleiman says.

Some states are tackling the problem head on. Michigan, for example, stood up a suicide-prevention task force this year after suffering several suicides in 2018. Its aim is to bring all facets of the state’s suicide prevention programs under one umbrella.

Brig. Gen. Lawrence Schloegl, Michigan’s assistant adjutant general-Army, says it also enables state officials to invigorate ties to community health care providers as well as to better evaluate current suicide prevention programs.

Schloegl says the task force has also come up with new ways to present suicide prevention awareness. One that has been effective is bringing in guest speakers, such as Eric Hipple, a former Detroit Lions quarterback who shares his battles with suicide and substance abuse after his 15-year-old killed himself in 2000.“

They see a sports figure who has gone through some of the same types of challenges and see that with the right help and care things can get better,” Schloegl explains.

The task force also disseminates information on the help avail-able across the state. This includes “Jasmine’s Place,” which is a designated space at community hospitals where troops can go outside of normal busi-ness hours for an in-person mental health evaluation.

“It’s one thing to talk to someone on the phone,” Schloegl says. “It’s another thing when you can sit down in a room and look across the table and have a deep conversation with somebody.”

Ultimately, he says, the Michigan Guard wants to find out what works best and save lives.

“We’ve had several successes where soldiers have contacted their first-line leaders or someone in their unit and resources were put into motion to get them the help that they need,” Schloegl says, “and those soldiers are still in formation and doing an outstanding job of getting help and getting healthy.”

The Guard appears to be having similar success nationwide, ac-cording to NGB figures. The Army Guard experienced 67 deaths by suicide through Nov. 21, which is 45 (or 40%) fewer than at the same point last year. Meanwhile, 13 Air Guardsmen had taken their lives, two fewer than on the same date last year.

Suicide Misconceptions & Facts

Misconception: Deployment increases military suicide risk. Fact: Several studies have shown that being deployed (including combat, length of deployment and number of deployments) is not associated with suicide risk among service members.

Misconception: The majority of service members who die by suicide had a mental illness. Fact: The majority of service members who die by suicide were not diagnosed with mental illness.

Misconception: If you remove access to one lethal method of suicide, someone at risk for suicide will replace it with another. Fact: When one method of suicide is removed, someone at risk is unlikely to substitute with a different method.

Misconception: Talking about suicide will lead to and encourage suicide. Fact: Talking about suicide provides the other person with an opportunity to express thoughts and feelings about something they may be keeping secret and/or obtain help and support.

Misconception: The military suicide rate is higher than the general population. Fact: Suicide rates are roughly equivalent for all components, except the National Guard, after controlling for age and sex.

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