Franklin James Cook

Alaska Army Post Battles Stigma to Prevent Suicide

In Prevention, Stigma on February 7, 2010 at 4:43 pm

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

In a post last year titled “Culture of Stigma Is a Key Cause of Military, Veteran Suicides,” I wrote that the most important question for suicide prevention advocates is “What is military (and civilian) leadership doing … to decisively lessen the stigma against help-seeking that is killing so many of those whose sacrifices make our freedom possible?”

Today, in “Combat Deaths — At Home after the War,” Anchorage Daily News reporter Richard Mauer takes a look at two current developments at Fort Richardson, Alaska, designed to counter the military’s “culture of stigma.”

First, shortly after assuming command of the U.S. Army in Alaska last fall, Maj. Gen. William Troy learned of a battalion-level decision not to give full honors to a soldier at Ford Richardson who had died by suicide, and Troy made it a policy throughout his command to treat suicide fatalities in the same way other deaths are treated.

“When you do a memorial service in a different way [for a suicide victim], I think that you’re adding to the stigmatization of a soldier who has a behavioral health problem. You don’t mean to, but what you’re doing is, you’re making it look like it’s his fault,” Troy said. “We should be memorializing his service to the nation, his service in combat. He’s a volunteer, a member of a free nation who came and joined our ranks to defend this country, and that’s what we should be memorializing, not passing judgment on the manner of his death.”

Second, soldiers soon to return to Fort Richardson will be the first brigade-size unit (3,000-5,000 soldiers) to test the Army’s Virtual Behavioral Health Pilot Program.

[The program] will screen every … soldier from the commander, Col. Michael Howard, and his sergeant major down to each private. First they’ll describe their experiences in a questionnaire, including any traumatic brain injury they might have suffered, then enter a booth for a private video conference with a mental health professional. The on-line professional can make an immediate referral, including appointment, with a local counselor or therapist, Troy said.

A U.S. Army news release says the objectives of the Virtual Behavioral Health Pilot Program are …

… to provide uniform contact, via face-to-face or the VBHP, with all redeploying Soldiers, in order to identify care requirements early, and help promote a cultural change of Soldiers’ views of behavioral health.

The support of Army leadership in suicide prevention initiatives is evidenced in a Jan. 8 memo issued by Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff — who was responding to the report of eight suicide fatalaties in the first eight days of the new year — by asking the Army’s NCOs and other frontline supervisors …

… to troop the line, walk through the motor-pool, stop by the barracks, eat a meal in the dining facility, and visit the guard post at midnight. Look each and every Soldier in the eye. Convey the message that each one is valued by our Army, their families and friends, and our Nation. Remind Soldiers that their Army remains committed to help, support, and assist them to meet hardships head-on, no matter the struggle, stressor, or challenge.

Here are a few SPNAC posts in the past year related to suicide in the military:

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