Commentary

Service member suicide prevention: Why the military must end the stigma on mental health

Earlier this month, the Department of Defense released a report stating a devastating 498 service members died by suicide in 2019. As a former active duty service member and a military spouse, we have witnessed the annual suicide prevention training, participated in the numerous push-up challenges to promote awareness, seen the ribbons hung around base during suicide prevention week, we have read the emails, and yet we have seen first-hand, that none of this was enough. Not enough to prevent the 498 service member suicides in 2019, the 543 suicides in 2018 or the 513 suicides in 2017, as reported by the DoD.

The stigma around mental health in the military creates an environment where service members experience anxiety due to a fear that seeking help could end their career. “Will it mean my leadership and peers think I’m crazy?” “Could this hinder my promotion?” Will I make the next deployment?" The military has a mission-first approach, and the mental health of their service members is an afterthought. In fact, the DoD did not begin keeping a record of service member suicides until after 9/11.

Tragically, just last week, a Navy sailor assigned to the USS Theodore Roosevelt in San Diego, California, ended his life while standing a security watch on the pier. Per the Navy Suicide Prevention Handbook, annual suicide prevention training is mandatory. So this raises the question: Are the facilitators leading the conversation effectively? Are they getting through to everyone in the room?

According to the 2020 Executive Order number 13861, more veterans, Guardsmen, active-duty members, and reservists die by suicide every year than those killed in action while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014 combined. It doesn’t stop there. Last month, Time magazine released an article stating the U.S military suicide rates have increased as much as 20 percent since the current global pandemic.

As stated in Instruction Number 6490.05, it is DoD policy that “The Military Departments' leadership shall foster an environment and climate of prevention and protection to enhance operational performance and mitigate the potential physical and psychological consequences of combat exposure and other military operational stress.” However, it is our experience, that any service member we know who has sought out mental health services has felt anything but fostered.

The policies and procedures that are in place work on paper but not in practice. So, where do we go from here? How do we change a culture where mental health isn’t being taken seriously? How many more casualties will the military allow before they decide that their service members come first?

We are convinced the military should increase the number of licensed social workers, military or civilian, especially at high-paced commands. This will allow service members access to support without the fear of voicelessness or retaliation. Also, we suggest the facilitators of the annual training receive extensive guidance, similar to the sexual assault victim advocacy training. Therefore, resulting in advocates specifically for suicide prevention.

Leadership should be held accountable from the top-down as suicide prevention is deeper than hitting the wickets every fiscal year. There must be an implementation of policy requirements that can effectively improve suicide prevention. The prevention efforts should address detailed risk factors contributing to suicide in service members.

Mental health services must be normalized in the military for our service members to properly utilize them. Service members who pursue treatment should not be scrutinized but instead, encouraged and supported. We believe, without hesitation, that mental health needs to be taken seriously and that the stigma must end. The lives of our service members, literally, depend on it.

If you or someone you know is in need of help, the Suicide Prevention Line is free, confidential, and available 24/7. They can be reached at 1-800-237-8255. Veterans can call 1-800-273-8255. These services can also be accessed by chat on https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Service members, veterans, and loved ones can also contact Military One Source, 24/7 at 1-800-342-9647, or through live chat at http://www.militaryonesource.mil

You can also reach the Defense Suicide Prevention office at 1-703-614-8840. Please note: This office does not provide crisis services.

Katrina Games is a Master of Social Work Student at the University of Southern California. She received her undergraduate degree in psychology from Purdue University. Katrina is also a Navy spouse. Aliyah Theargood is also a Master of Social Work Student at the University of Southern California and Reservist in the United States Navy.

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, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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