Edmonds Military Wire: Are suicide prevention programs effective?

By Michael Schindler

As mentioned in a previous post, we are exploring what, if anything, can be done to prevent suicides in the military. The stats show an increase in suicides across all branches – most notably the Army and Marines, followed by Air Force and Navy. Most troubling are the increased suicides among our National Guardsmen – an 82 percent rise since 2009 – and that only takes into account those deaths that are actually attributed to suicide. So, what is being done?

All branches of the service have suicide prevention programs. The recent one I attended and received certification in was ASIST. This program relies heavily on gatekeepers – folks trained to identify those at risk for suicide and to take those individuals to a behavioral health-care provider or chaplain. This is the “watch out for your brother” technique – or as I’ve heard around the mess deck or chow hall, “big brother” — stated as both a positive and negative.

According to RAND, there is no evidence that indicates that this type of prevention technique is effective. So what is effective and how do we make programs more effective? Here are just a few suggestions out of 14 that RAND recommends, based on their research:

– Track suicides and suicide attempts systematically and consistently. This seems reasonable and in fact, the Department of Defense just implemented a department-wide surveillance program to track suicides and suicide attempts. This needs to be implemented among all the services and each installation as well. Bottom line: use the same criteria, regardless of the branch, to determine which suicide attempts require completion of a surveillance report.
– Raise awareness and promote self-care. The Army has a great video, “Shoulder to Shoulder,” that explains the issue and impact from both sides. What RAND found is that more effort ought to be made to teach servicemembers the skills that they may need to refer themselves to chaplains or behavioral health professionals.
– Improve coordination and communication between caregivers and service providers. There is often a disconnect here between health care providers and chaplains. RAND found conflicting reports about the relationship between these professionals on military bases. The hand-off is traditionally sloppy. Improved communication and collaboration among the two will help create a trustworthy handoff so few — or perhaps no — servicemember is overlooked

Are the current programs effective? The jury is still out. One could make the argument that because the number of suicides are increasing these intervention programs are failing, but aren’t they working if they save even one life?

Michael Schindler, Navy veteran, and president of Edmonds-based Operation Military Family, is a guest writer for several national publications, author of the book “Operation Military Family” and “The Military Wire” blog. He is also a popular keynote and workshop speaker who reaches thousands of service members and their families every year through workshops and seminars that include  “How to Battle-Ready Your Relationship” or “What Your Mother-in-Law Didn’t Tell You.”  He received the 2010 Outstanding Patriotic Service Award from the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs.


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