Can the Army's New Suicide Prevention Plan Really Work?

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The U.S. Army's Task Force on Suicide Prevention released a comprehensive report this morning, assessing the Army's now-acute suicide problem and outlining the leadership's plans to confront it. General Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, briefed Congress on its contents yesterday. Though some are calling the report a blueprint for suicide prevention, Colonel Christopher Philbrick, head of the Task Force under General Chiarelli, maintains it's just part of an ongoing process. "This report proposes different ways we can address the issue. But it's not the final step," he says. "We realize we need time to work with the Army family, make adjustments as needed. It's simply the continuation of our campaign."

Few if any are questioning Chiarelli's or Philbrick's seriousness in leading this campaign. The open question is whether they, and it, will have the leverage to start changing the Army's broader mindset.

In 2009, only a few months after a member of my own Army family took his life, the number of Army suicides soared. The final tally for the year was 245 -- with more than 1,700 attempts on file. Though General Chiarelli has made suicide prevention a top priority, creating the Task Force and pushing new training efforts down the chain of command, those numbers have remained steady. In fact, June showed a record-breaking 32 suicides -- on average, more than one a day.

Just as there is no simple reason why a soldier would take his own life, there is no simple solution for reducing suicide attempts across the board, particularly given the cultural challenges endemic to Army life. For example, after the suicide of a private I knew, it was my job, as the company's Family Readiness Group leader, to inform the rest of the families in the unit of the tragedy. Yet when I told the non-commissioned officer who briefed me on the death that I wanted to notify the rest of the families in the company as soon as possible -- especially with a memorial service likely for the coming week -- he suggested I wait.

"I'm not sure how they're planning to handle it, honestly. ... It was a suicide."

Some have argued that any efforts made by Big Army to prevent future suicides will be too easily derailed by the same traditional military culture that debates whether that young private I knew merited a traditional memorial service. Philbrick, however, believes the Army is making some inroads in dealing with the cultural challenges. The Task Force has been assessing available programs to make sure they meet current needs and creating new training programs for soldiers. It recently released a suicide prevention education video based on true stories.

"The issues we're dealing with are not ones we're comfortable talking about. There's still a stigma for those who seek help that is prevalent throughout the force. We acknowledge that," Philbrick says. "But I do believe our efforts in the past year, led by the senior leaders in the Army like General Chiarelli and others, are helping to show that a soldier who raises his hand and says, 'I need help' is showing strength, not weakness."

The report also makes recommendations concerning military dependent suicides -- a subject that has not received as much attention as the suicides of those in uniform. In February, Kristy Kaufmann -- a military family advocate who wrote a controversial op-ed in the Washington Post last year, arguing that continued deployments were breaking Army families -- spoke before Congress about the growing number of family member suicides on record.

"We've been remarkably silent so far -- in a sense, we have the same stiff-upper-lip culture as the guys. You know, 'Put on your big girl panties and deal with it,'" she says. "But the family-member numbers are high enough that we need to make this a part of the national dialogue about military suicides. We can't ignore it any longer."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a focus on individual resiliency remains a significant part of the Army's approach. For instance, the Task Force's plan includes a program for comprehensive soldier fitness, also available to family members. Kaufmann maintains it's not enough, though. "It's a great program. But frankly, I think we're past the tipping point. Our 'can-do' attitude means that we 'can-do' until we can't anymore," she says. "The spouses I've known who took their own lives were resilient. They were volunteers, they were mothers and they had great life skills. But these women hit a wall and saw no other option. And no matter how good resiliency might be, with the current op-tempo, there's a limit. As they say, everyone hits a wall at some time."

There is no doubt that the Army has a "can-do" culture. Soldiers and spouses can deal with an ongoing war on two fronts. We can deal with deployments every other year. We can handle the distance, the stress, and the unknowns. But like an improvised explosive device (IED), these "can-dos" too often blow up, cutting in ways that even the strongest military family might never have imagined: divorce, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and a myriad of children's issues. Only we've been trained, both soldier and spouse, not to acknowledge it. It's a common theme both on the line and on the homefront. And even if the wars end today or deployments are reduced to a more manageable schedule, the Army community will be dealing with the fall-out for years to come.

Philbrick recognizes it's a legitimate concern. "In some senses, we're chasing a rabbit. No matter how many holes are in the ground, we just can't find it as quickly as we need to," he says. Still, he remains optimistic. "There is no solution that the Army has refused to acknowledge, and we continue to look at all angles of the issue: the research, the medical, the leadership, the culture. It's something we can't and won't stop talking about."

It is clear Chiarelli and Philbrick are committed to their efforts and are doing their utmost to promote change within the ranks. But the questions remain: How much talk is required to truly change a culture? And what will it take to get soldiers and family members who are contemplating suicide the help they need before it's too late? Despite the earnest and thorough efforts of the Army's leadership, and the Task Force's new plan, the answers will take a lot more time to find -- perhaps more than we can spare.
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Kayt Sukel has written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and National Geographic Traveler, among others. She is a military spouse and has served as a Family Readiness Group leader for the Army.

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