THE BLOG

The Message About Suicide and the Military

Feb 04, 2013 | Updated Apr 06, 2013

According to Pentagon figures, 349 military service members took their lives in 2012. Every one of these deaths exacts an incalculable toll -- from the victim's families, from their military units, and from our society. Yet news about the statistics on military suicide and accompanying examples of personal tragedy often leave the impression that these suicides occur much more frequently than they actually do.

All too often, news stories about military suicide contain sensationalized headlines to grab a reader's attention. They highlight those who, for a variety of reasons, did not get help. These stories tend to imply that suicide among this population is rampant; an epidemic without solutions.

The fact is, that for each soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine who died by suicide, there were thousands who were able to find the support and resilience to go on living, many times making use of the programs offered on U.S. military bases around the world. These supports include effective treatments for PTSD, depression, and substance use disorders; marriage counseling; spiritual support; legal assistance; financial counseling; and career services.

For some of these struggling military members, the programs were readily available and accessible. For others, it took an extra effort to overcome geographical barriers, scheduling problems, and waits for appointments to get the help and treatment needed. Often, it was the support of spouses, friends, and extended family that got them through until they could find relief from their pain or develop ways to cope. In the end, they found help. The programs worked.

Many, many members of our military, with the support of their supervisors and commanders, seek help early for life's stressors -- before a situation becomes a crisis. Creating a culture that promotes and supports individuals that seek help early was at the heart of the suicide prevention efforts mounted by the U.S. Air Force in the late 1990s. This initiative produced a historic 33 percent reduction in suicides, along with a 51 percent reduction in homicides, a 54 percent reduction in severe family violence, and an 18 percent reduction in accidental deaths. Early intervention is the ideal.

After reviewing dozens of news stories, speaking with countless reporters, and reviewing the scientific literature, we are convinced that the full story is not getting out. We need to document the resourcefulness and determination that characterizes so many of our military men and women -- character traits that help them survive the stresses of working long hours and irregular schedules to fight a decade of wars. Returning soldiers prove every day that they are resilient, using the survival skills and can-do attitude from their military training to manage and cope with the difficulties they face. We need to hear more stories about their strength, resilience, and willingness to make use of available resources and services.

There will always be stories about the numbers, documenting the physical and emotional tolls of fighting and returning from war. But more stories about available support and the successful use of social services and effective treatments will help our men and women in uniform see that coping and adapting is the norm. Getting out this story can help saves lives.