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Chaplains answer questions about suicide warning signs, aid resources

PAO staff report

The Army's most precious resource is its Soldiers, 128 of whom committed suicide in 2008. As disturbing of a number as that is, hope is not lost, as there are resources available to aid Soldiers in crisis. 

Below, Chaplain (Maj.) Jerry Sieg, the Fort Richardson Family Life chaplain, and Chaplain (Maj.) Gregory Walker, the Fort Richardson garrison chaplain, answer questions Soldiers and family members may have concerning warning signs, seeking aid and available resources.

Is suicide a concern for the Army?

Preventing suicide has been a major concern since the inception of the Army's Suicide Prevention Program in the late 1980s. With the latest statistics for 2008, the Army is increasingly concerned for the welfare of their Soldiers and family members.


Why should threats or jokes of suicide always be taken seriously?

Joking about suicide is a concern for a number of reasons. We all use humor as a way of handling stress. It is a normal part of our culture. However, joking also sends a message about what we value and what we don't. Joking about suicide can also prevent a suicidal person from seeking the help he needs. As professionals, we must be careful to ensure our humor is in line with our values as a professional Army.

Suicide is never a single decision made in an instant. In most cases, an individual begins to experience problems that exceed their ability to cope. When they run out of options to resolve the problem, they look for something that will make a difference.

People will commonly begin to consider suicide in their minds long before they take action. This suicidal ideation eventually finds voice in offhanded comments, joking about suicide and even threats if they are under great stress. How we respond to these verbalizations can be a determining factor in breaking through the isolation most suicidal people experience.


What are some warning signs of suicide?

There are many warning signs of suicidal thoughts. There are generally changes in one's appearance, appetite, sleep pattern and mood. There can also be a marked decrease in their job performance, personal hygiene, motivation, communication and social involvement. Sometimes there is an increased use of alcohol, use of illegal drugs and irritability as well.

Verbal signs could be joking about suicide or threats or comments about how life would be better without them. Their word choices may also suggest their need for help, such as "They won't have to worry about me" or "I probably won't be around anymore."


What sort of provisions are in place to protect Soldiers seeking aid?

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act standards ensure a person's privacy when it comes to mental health care. The Army recently changed its requirements for reporting mental health care to exclude counseling as a result of deployment and reintegration issues. Chaplains are bound by rules of privileged information. These measures all give Soldiers a means of secure privacy


Will seeking help hurt a Soldier's military career?

No. Over the years the Army and society's attitude toward suicide and those seeking help has changed. Seeking help isn't looked at as a sign of weakness or of being unable to Soldier. Seeking help is a sign of leadership and a sign of strength.

There's an Army suicide prevention poster that says: "Never Accept Defeat; Getting Help is a Sign of Strength" and another that says: "Never Accept Defeat; Admitting a Need for Help is Not a Character Flaw." True leaders lead by example, so if you're a real leader, you need to have the strength to recognize you need help and then be willing to get that help.

The Army Strong mentality is that we are invincible. The problem lies in the fact that when people become suicidal, they feel anything but invincible. These two mental pictures are mutually exclusive to each other, and that serves to set the playing field for the idea that if you're suicidal, then you can't be strong.

The reality is our Soldiers and family members face great challenges in today's Army. Some of the very skills we use to be so successful in the combat zone also leave us vulnerable. The walls of "toughness" that keep the enemy at a safe distance are the same walls that keep the enemies of despair, hopelessness and worthlessness inside and leave us alone to deal with them.


What resources are there for Soldiers locally to get help if they are contemplating hurting themselves or others?

There are a number of ways for Soldiers to get help in the area. Chaplains are a source of confidentiality and are trained to make preliminary assessments and to work with people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts.

Medical staff members, such as mental health workers, physicians or medical clinicians, are also available. Additionally, there are a number of resources through Army Community Service that provide skilled caregivers, to include the sexual assault response coordinator, the victims advocate and Family Advocacy Program staff.

Information on chaplain's counseling and programs is available by calling 353-9880 at Fort Wainwright or 384-1461 for Fort Richardson. To consult a Military and Family Life consultant, call (907) 388-2553 on Fort Wainwright or 317-4448 or 382-1407 on Fort Richardson.

The emergency rooms at Bassett Army Community Hospital on Fort Wainwright and Elmendorf Air Force Base's joint military hospital are open 24 hours a day.

Behavioral Health is located in Building 4066 at Fort Wainwright, and walk-ins are welcome from 7:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Fort Richardson's Behavioral Health office is located in EMD 03 across from the Troop Medical Clinic and is open on a walk-in basis from 7 to 11:30 a.m. and 1 to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

For more Behavioral Health information, call 361-6059 for Fort Wainwright or a 384-0405 for Fort Richardson.