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Department of Defense Reviews Four-Part Anti-Suicide Strategy

At this years’ annual Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs suicide prevention conference, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta presented a strategic approach to preventing military suicides. This year alone, military personnel took their own lives at a rate of nearly one person per day – which is approximately twice the number of Americans killed in Afghanistan during the same period of time.

According to Defense Department research, the U.S. military suicide rate is the highest it has been in a decade. In his remarks to conference attendees, Secretary Panetta acknowledged that the stress of repeated deployments, sustained combat exposure, traumatic injuries and post traumatic stress disorder play a role in the elevated suicide rate. He also noted that since more than half of military suicides are service members who never deployed, there is a “broader societal issue” involved. He stated that risk factors like substance abuse, financial distress and relationship problems endure beyond wartime conditions, and that military leadership will take a more proactive role in preventing suicide among its members.

The four pillars of Secretary Panetta’s program are leadership, improving health care quality and access; elevating the importance of mental fitness; and increasing research into suicide prevention.

Secretary Panetta stated that suicide prevention is first and foremost a responsibility for military leaders. They are charged with encouraging subordinates to obtain help when they need it, and for ensuring that those who seek help are not in any way bullied or alienated. Because mental health is not understood, military leadership must work to help end the stigma that is often associated with mental health issues and recovery.

The next pillar of the program, improving health care quality and access, includes the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program. This program links reservists and their families to local health care services before, during and after deployments. Active duty troops have access to more than 9,000 mental health care professionals, but guard and reservists resources are not as readily available. The Yellow Ribbon Reintegration program seeks to bridge that gap.

The Department of Defense has always placed emphasis on physical fitness. The third pillar of the anti-suicide program aims to raise awareness of the importance of mental fitness. Part of this awareness includes providing troops with training on much-needed coping skills and emotional intelligence.

Finally, suicide prevention research will require a government-private sector partnership. Secretary Panetta noted that there is a great deal of learning opportunity about suicide, causes, effectiveness of prevention programs, and linkages between brain trauma and psychological health. The Department of Defense and the VA are cooperatively developing an information repository to improve analysis of attempted suicides, suicides and behavioral trends. The idea is to provide resources to troops, their families and friends to help recognize signs of trouble as well as offer tools to help those in need.

Secretary Panetta stated that his long-term goal is for the Department of Defense to be an innovator in understanding mental health. It would seem that the Army is wasting no time getting to work toward this goal. An Indiana University School of Medicine scientist was recently awarded $3 million to develop an anti-suicide nasal spray for soldiers. Associate professor Michael Kubek received the grant from the U.S. Army to work with a thyrotropin-releasing hormone, a neurochemical known to have anti-depressant and anti-suicidal effects.

Active duty troops and Veterans alike may be able to benefit from the recent emphasis on suicide prevention. If you are currently feeling despair or hopeless, or if you are concerned about someone else’s health, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800·273-TALK (8255).

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