Soldier Suicide: The Stigma to Seeking Help

The biggest barrier to preventing suicide among our service members and veterans is countering the disciplined self-reliance that they've been trained to embrace

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It’s never a highly publicized affair on a military post. When we pass through our commissary and pick up the installation newsletter, we are used to seeing an official photograph of a soldier, their obituary, their age — typically under 30. But more and more frequently, the words “killed in action” will be conspicuously missing from the narrative, and other clues will eliminate the possibility of a training accident or drug use or a car crash.

(MORE: Read This Week’s Cover Story, “Why Can’t The Army Win The War On Suicide”)

The veteran suicide epidemic is a terrible outcome of multiple years of war. I have personally dealt with the issue having both lost a dear friend to suicide and consoled soldiers during such circumstances and can attest to its devastating impact on the force and the wider community. Soldiers tend to pride ourselves on our ability to care and be cared for by their brothers in arms: it’s a bond seldom replicated in modern American living. So when one of our own decides that his or her life has lost its worth — that living is somehow more terrifying than dying — our entire circle feels an overwhelming failure has come over us. What if I hadn’t skipped out on that last beer? What if I had just said a few more nice things to them? How could I have let this person live without them knowing what they mean to me? The weight of this guilt bears upon us like armor, yet is surely not as easy to take off.

(MORE: Military Suicides: Help for Families Worried About Their Service Member)

In the wake of such sadness, veteran and military establishments alike are flooding our veterans’ lives with incessant directives to “get help” and “always check on your buddy.” Certainly out of instinct, and possibly out of doctrine, the call to action for soldiers to care for their mental health is largely executed like a campaign to screen for AIDS or get a flu shot. Services are pitched as a potential solution, with the underlying assumption that the soldier or veteran is looking for a solution. But often, the service members in the greatest need of mental help are the ones most resistant to it, thus the call to action goes unanswered. This is in fact the greatest hurdle the military and veteran services community will face in their battle against veteran suicide: countering the disciplined self-reliance we train our service members to embrace.

Over the course of a soldier or officer’s training, we inculcate in them a vicious and emotional resistance to weakness; a persistence and confidence to overcome any obstacle, even the prospect of fatal combat. We drill into our soldiers the value of obedience and discipline. We teach them to bear their own load as well as their buddies’. On a long and arduous climb up a mountain, it’s hard to be weak when you know your brother or sister is feeding off of your energy. This is the essence of the camaraderie and family that exists between service members in our military, and particularly on the front lines. These are of course among the most esteemed values in our society, yet are also the hardest barriers to break down when a soldier begins to devalue his or her own life.

(MORE: U.S. Military Suicides in 2012: 155 Days, 154 Dead)

The complexity of solving our veteran mental health crisis is not a question of the availability of services, it’s in encouraging soldiers to use those services. How do we tell someone who has been shot at and blown up for multiple tours of duty that the biggest danger they face now is themselves? For me, my mind was strong enough to get me through combat. It was the ultimate weapon against complacency and emotional breakdown. My mind was my saving grace, and to hear that it was now my biggest burden when I returned from a tour with post-traumatic stress sounded like a joke. Besides, I didn’t even have it that bad. We saw a lot of fights, but I came home in one piece; but many of my company-mates did not. How was I supposed to sit in a hospital waiting room to cry to a doctor about my bad dreams when there were soldiers with amputated legs sitting next to me?

But my mother and girlfriend wouldn’t take no for an answer. I started going to see a counselor. But I was about to transfer posts (as most soldiers do within six months of a deployment) so we decided not to do much more than talk from time to time. When I finally moved to my new posting, took a month of leave, and settled into my new job, there was enough stimuli around me to make me feel like I didn’t need anything else. And so when I started having trouble sleeping, over indulging in food and alcohol, and pushing away family and friends, I drowned myself in work to keep myself so busy that I wouldn’t think about the underlying causes of my behavior.

(VIDEO: What Can the Rest of Us Do to Help Prevent Military Suicides?)

And then it happened. I learned that one of my best friends had taken his own life. I heard the news over the phone at work and could bear the load any longer.  I walked into a friend’s office and erupted with a pulsating volcano of snot, tears, and wails. We shut the door, and I had my moment. It wasn’t crying. It was a purging of all the toxins that I should have flushed out long ago in a clinic rather than the local dive bar. And for the first time in my life, I walked outside of that room, not worrying about finding a distraction, but about finding my family and loved ones again. Though it pains me to say it, and I’ll probably never forgive myself for feeling this way, my friend’s suicide made me a better person. I love more, I laugh heartily. And part of me wonders what fate I’d have in store had I never broke down and taken a step in the right direction. Despite my gains, I still never made the effort to return to counseling myself.

But not all soldiers will be so lucky to have such a jolt in their life. To compensate, the solution to this conundrum is two fold. Currently, mental health screening is done through hour-long surveys and single-course interviews to asses vulnerability to mental illness. Naturally, these are the easiest things to fake—even I learned how to “Tab + Tab + Click” through all my surveys and put on a smiling face for the duration of my interviews.  A better solution would be to have civilian mental health professionals at the Company or even Platoon level to help understand the daily rhythms in a soldiers’ professional and personal life; someone who can earn the trust of a unit and respond at the drop of a hat — not after a call for an appointment. Mental health resources need to be integrated in to the modern garrison lifestyle.

(MORECaptains Courageous)

But at the end of the day, overcoming the stigma of using mental health resources remains the crux of the problem. And to this, I have no policy solution. There is no bureaucratic office that can take away the strong and independent will of our military service members and generate a mass realization for the need to take mental health personally and seriously. The best we can do for our future generation of service members is refine our instruction on what it means to be strong. Sometimes being strong means accepting weakness, even when its embarrassing. Sometimes being the good soldier is the one who asks for time off to go see a professional. Sometimes, winning means surrendering. This is the new battle our veterans continue fighting, and as we cheer at parades and wave our flags, let’s all wish upon them the most noble of victories, a noble surrender to themselves.

SPECIAL: America’s Next War: Rehabilitating Wounded Soldiers

9 comments
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flyguygirl
flyguygirl

I lay the blame squarely at the feet of Congress and the Executive. There are very little funds allocated for counseling. An example is marital counseling: When a military person returns from deployment and has trouble readjusting to his/her life as a spouse the couple is only

allowed 6 (SIX) FREE marital counseling sessions! This is inadequate. Yet the emphasis is upon these young kids getting married and starting families. So if they want their military

people to come back to a home and a family (versus the baracks) they need to provide the reentry structure. They spent more money on street lights in Iraq tha they do for our troops.

Of course had the well-paid administrative types in D.C. actually planned for post-invasion

Iraq then there would not have been so much destruction including the damn lights.

Peter Marks
Peter Marks

The problem of PTSD and the potential for our warriors to commit suicide has to be observed in the field by the superior officers and they are very aware of troops who are showing signs of PTSD but they don't follow through because the superior officers are needed to direct field operations and make decisions as to troop deployment in the field rather than dealing more with the mental condition of the troops.  The fact remains our warriors are in denial of PTSD and most desperately need psychiatric help as soon as possible as they are all vulnerable to depression and suicide.  I had a friend who was a 2nd Lt. in the Green Berets with a Silver Star who served in Vietnam and soon after he came home and was working with me for the same company.  He seemed okay but four months after being backed home he took his life by blowing his brains out on a Saturday.  He left a wife and two children.  I was devastated as he was a soldier’s soldier and I am a Marine.  I respected and honored him for his service to our country.  His death could have been prevented were he to have admitted he needed psychiatric help and his superior officers were able to either provide the help or remove him from duty until it is shown by a military doctor he is fit to return to duty.  I am a Marine (1957-1963).

Jeanne Ball
Jeanne Ball

Some soldiers and Vets are finding Transcendental Meditation to be a helpful tool for overcoming stress and trauma. Research has found TM to be effective in treating PTSD and creating greater resilience. 

Operation Warrior Wellness has been introduced in Norwich Military Academy where students are practicing meditation as part of their training.

http://www.operationwarriorwel...

Jeanne Ball
Jeanne Ball

Some veterans are seeking alternatives to medicating. Transcendental Meditation is being studied for it's effectiveness in treating PTSD and building resilience in soldiers. Check out 

Operation Warrior Wellness.

Ted Sebern
Ted Sebern

You know it's funny. Not funny ha ha but funny peculiar. Why didn't the guys and girls in Viet Nam have this problem? Or if they did why didn't they say something?

Too many of us have gone through the grinder to satisfy the government, when the government should go into battle and fight it out. I spent my time in1962-65 and listened to the Secretary of Defense tell the General of the Army we needed thousands of men and women to reinforce our presence in Viet Nam. USS Maddox may have been a farce and I can't prove it but my brother was there and so was I.  Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.

Guest
Guest

Though it's great you can get counseling, what about those who have PTSD from other traumas, such as rape and assault?

What about normal depression?

Combat trauma is the cause celebre, the continued rate of suicide even by soldiers who have not seen combat demonstrates there is more than just combat PTSD. If soldiers could get help for EVERYTHING without being dimed out to their command, reporting it on their security clearance form, or being stigmatized THEN we would see people actually getting the help they need.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

Good article Mr. Srinivasan. Thanks for your service and thanks for your honesty. I hope others can learn from it. This is a vexing problem. When I was a platoon sergeant, I saw soldiers suffer on deployment. Most of the suffering was do to being away from home and living in a toxic work environment. We never saw combat, and that was a blessing, but I saw how soldiers could suffer and their leadership turn a blind eye. I did what I could in my own little world, but I never felt like I could do enough for them. We had some services available, but I never saw its effectiveness. I don't have any answers, but I wish to God I did.

DarthWhatever
DarthWhatever

 You bring up some really good points, and ones that aren't typically addressed in these conversations.  When talking about soldiers and mental health there's usually an assumption that battle worn troops on the front lines are the only concern.  A toxic work environment and poor leadership (even outside of direct combat and deployments) may be a bigger factor.   There are inherent risks and stress factors in what military personnel do but adding a toxic work environment and bad leadership into the mix only compounds and exacerbates problems that might otherwise be manageable.

Shawn Disney
Shawn Disney

About soldier suicides, it is those who think that some Counseling program is an answer who are "In Denial".  The fact is that these soldiers are smarter than you:  they are well aware,on some level,  that their service is completely at odds with the propaganda about why they are killing various foreigners. This problem is not new:  in WW2, even with the dreaded German military, taxed with the duty of executing masses of civilians, it was found that even the most dedicated Nazis soon "burned out" , and had to be replaced.