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Step 3 to end military suicides: Reduce stigma

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, and we’ve invited John Bateson to write a series of articles on one group that is particularly vulnerable: military service members. Read Step 1 and Step 2 of 5.

The stigma of mental illness poses a major barrier when it comes to individuals seeking help. As a society, we are much more comfortable admitting physical problems than psychological ones.

Nowhere is this more true than in the military, where troops are trained to be tough and not acknowledge any weaknesses. General George Patton’s infamous slaps of two World War II soldiers who were hospitalized in Italy for psychological reasons is the most obvious example of the military mindset regarding mental health problems, but the same mentality exists throughout much of the military today. This is why encouraging troops to seek help has such little effect. Admission of a mental health problem can result in a commander’s scorn, end opportunities for promotion, and shorten one’s military career.

The military isn’t the only entity responsible for destigmatizing psycho­logical problems, but there are steps the military can take. Here are four:

  1. Individuals who suffer from posttraumatic stress and are able to manage it should be considered strongly for promotions the same as troops who recover from physical wounds. Moreover, when a service member recovering from PTSD is promoted, his or her ability to overcome a serious mental injury should be recognized publicly so that it serves as a model and inspiration for others, just as overcoming a serious physical injury can provide hope and encouragement for people with similar disabilities.
  2. Since the practice is to award Purple Hearts to troops who suffer a serious physical injury in combat, Purple Hearts also should be awarded to those who suffer serious mental health injuries in combat. Injuries are injuries, and none should be minimized.
  3. White House policy regarding letters of condolence must change. Prior to 2011, presidential letters were sent to families of troops killed in battle, but not to active-duty service members who died by suicide. To President Obama’s credit, the policy was amended to include soldiers whose suicides occurred in a war zone. Nearly 80% of suicides by active-duty troops occur stateside, however, and families of these service members should receive letters, too. Their loved ones gave their lives for this country, and acknowledging this can provide a measure of comfort to them. It also will send the message that every suicide—regardless of the circumstances or where it occurred—is a tragedy.
  4. Just as good conduct medals and combat awards are bestowed on troops for a job well done, so should commendations be given when soldiers recognize that their comrades need psychological help and act to see that they get it. It’s part of developing a strong, healthy team.

Reducing the stigma of mental illness will lead more people to admit problems and help reduce the suicide rate of current service members and veterans. It will require institutional changes in policies, procedures, attitudes, and culture in two of our biggest bureaucracies—the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs—but that is where change needs to happen.

Feature Image: 2009 Army National Guard Honor Guard Competition. US Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy. The National Guard. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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