The outpouring of support and kindness that I have received over these last two weeks has been overwhelming. I have connected with spouses, parents, and service members grappling with suicide in the military, as well as professionals in the mental health field who have launched non-profits to address these issues. It can be lonely being married to a depressed or suicidal military (or civilian) individual. If that is you, you are not alone; there is a multitude of people standing with you.
Within 30 hours of my first op-ed going live, Maj. Gen. Steve Schaick, the Air Force chief of chaplains, reached out to me. From that initial conversation, I have spoken with several in Air Force leadership, including Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, about suicide. I invited them to come and talk with a mental hospital staff here, local commanders, and most importantly, members who have walked this path. I had the honor of being able to share my husband’s and my stories with the Air Force Resiliency Committee, and I hope to continue to work with them on this issue. It is a life and death reality for too many.
One story that impacted me is of a C-130J pilot. He experienced depression and suicidal ideation due to personal issues, yet was afraid of the consequences of revealing his struggle. He had dreamed of being a pilot since childhood, and he could not risk placing that in jeopardy. He first talked to a chaplain, then Military One Source, but then self-hospitalized for suicidal ideations. Afterwards, he had both off and on base counselors, but was pressured into dropping his off base counselor. Due to the prescribed antidepressants, he was removed from his mission. Our pilot lost his connection to the mission, lost his purpose, and became suicidal again, trying to overdose on his antidepressants. Commanders often struggle in this position with little training to give an appropriate response, and threatened court martial. He was medically retired, but he still wants to serve if given the chance again.
One resounding theme with many who reached out, including our pilot, was how trust in military mental health is tenuous at best. Trust is tantamount to healing for service members battling these issues. They must know that mental health will put people before policy.
Lack of input in a therapy plan seems to reduce the likelihood that the member will continue. Half of all military members who commit suicide sought mental health in the 90 days prior, similar to our pilot. This statistic stops me in my tracks, and demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the system. This is not solely an Air Force issue; it permeates each branch. The Marines have the highest suicide rate; I applaud the Air Force for trying to step up and publicly deal with this issue instead of hoping it goes away.
The Army and Marine Corps report the highest suicide rates, while the National Guard's rate outpaces the general U.S. population.
Sometimes, we have to go to battle for other people, not because they are incapable or inept or unqualified, but because they are too busy fighting their own demons. The entire military community is needed to overcome this. We all have ownership in this, whether by loving someone who fights this, or by being in a unit affected by a suicide or knowing of someone who struggles to cope.
As a spouse, I did not know what I could or should do. So, if you are in my shoes, here are some steps you can take:
First, call 911 if there is an immediate threat to self-harm. This can feel so unsettling from a perspective of “what if.” What if the paramedics choose not to transport? What if this gets back to a commander? What if the member gets violent? These are hard to weigh against what to do. It takes monumental courage to make the call.
Second, find counseling for yourself. It can be traumatic to have someone so close want to die. As a spouse, it is hard not to blame myself at times. What could I do better? What should I do better? Those questions race through my mind when my husband spirals. Finding someone to vent to can have protective measures on an already fractured and stressed relationship. Tricare covers mental health counseling for spouses and dependents without a primary care manager (PCM) referral. Military One Source, while limited, may also provide a good place to start, as well as the Military and Family Life Counseling Program. I personally see a trauma counselor off-base through Tricare and am not limited in sessions. It has been vital and life-changing for me.
Third, invest in yourself. Spending time with someone in such dire straits, especially during this time of shutdown, can take a toll on you and your ability to cope with a heart-wrenching situation, so take a break. Many organizations offer help and connection with people in this situation. This will take some research and courage.
Something that has helped me through this is a line from the movie “We Bought a Zoo”: “You know, sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage. Just literally 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”
As this mission continues forward, I believe that spouses are key in this fight. I will continue to do my part and hopefully, one day, we will get to where service members’ mental-health needs are met. If you are a spouse dealing with a suicidal or depressed husband or wife, I am with you in this, and continue to work with the people who listen to make a difference. If you are unable to reach out right now and are reading this, know that when you are ready, there is an army ready to stand by you. We will be here.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, option 1.
Aleha Landry lives in Colorado with her husband and four children, and has spent the last decade as a stay-at-home mom. She has a passion for politics and policy, hates to cook (but cooks much due to aforementioned children), and loves to travel. She holds a bachelor’s of business administration from Colorado Christian University. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, email@example.com.