Coping with Trauma — 31 August 2009
Suicide prevention in the military

Suicide is an act born out of profound despondency, inability to assess alternatives and the faulty conclusion that taking one’s life is the only option left. It is a tragic, irreversible act that needlessly terminates a precious being’s life and leaves so many loved ones traumatized, guilt ridden and even in intractable grief.

Recent media coverage has brought to the public attention the phenomena of increased incident of suicide among military personnel during their service or upon returning home.

An Army suicide prevention guide in mid-March 2008 stated, “Since the beginning of the global war on terror, the Army has lost over 580 soldiers to suicide, an equivalent of an entire infantry battalion task force.”

The Department of Veteran Affairs that tracks the number of suicide after discharge, reported that from 2002-2005 144 suicides occurred in nearly 500,000 discharged military personnel.

Talk Radio News Service compared the number of suicides in the Army between 2006 and early 2009. Self-inflicted deaths have increased by 13% in 2006 compared to 2005, from 102 to 115. In 2008 the number grew to 140 and in the first two months of 2009 there were 41 suicides compared to 16 in 2008. These figures are alarming and show no signs that the problem has been curbed.

These figures do not include the total incident of suicide in all branches of the military. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Veterans Administration estimates that 18 veterans a day–or 6,500 a year – take their own lives, but the number includes vets from all wars.

The causes of these alarming numbers, have been attributed to: recruitment incentives jeopardizing screening, predisposition to depression and emotional problems, stress management failures, multiple tours of duty, marital difficulties, substance abuse, financial difficulties and the stresses associated with re-adjustment to civilian life.

While each of these factors is sufficient – the combination of some of them can tax anyone’s psyche. What is insufficiently highlighted is that the atrocities of war: the sites, sounds, smells, ongoing intractable trauma and dehumanizing experiences are the major source of unbearable trauma. Calling it a PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is accurate, but does not begin to describe the ravages war inflicts on the soul, spirit, and humanity of soldiers.

The intolerable war sights, death and maiming of comrades, grief, fear, guilt, loneliness and isolation from loved ones, can render any healthy person traumatized and seeking escape. War does not only affect those who are prone to depression- war often causes profound depression.

I have served in the military (not in a combat unit). I also read the letters my brother, a tank commander, sent to me detailing the atrocities of war. I feel immense compassion for soldiers who endured this hell. I certainly do not suggest that suicide is a wise option, but understand that war creates depression, hopelessness, and can even damage one’s will to live.

As a psychologist, I urge those dealing with suicide prevention in the military to not ascribe weakness or pre-existing vulnerability to depressed soldiers. I implore them to see war as the monster that selectively and incrementally destroys humans who need protection from the ravages of this demon.

• Recommend limiting tours of duty in war zone to one.
• Imbed Mental Health professionals specialized in group therapy in combat units.
• Use technology to keep soldiers more connected to their families through “face to face” contact.
• Train teammates to listen, care and protect each other’s well- being.
• Help every soldier feel special and worthy every day. Train leaders of all ranks to provide the validation to all their subordinates and peers.
• Consider every returning veteran as a suicide risk and facilitate his/her readjustment to civilian life through medical, personal, financial and family counseling.
• You say it is expensive? Sure it is – but what is the cost of one needlessly lost life?

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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