he Army has been trying to change its collective, tough-guy attitude in recent years, in part because of an increased rate of suicide. Soldiers are now told that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.
The Army’s new disposition toward mental health was unveiled in a suicide prevention report released last week. It is stepping up efforts to integrate various mental health and social services programs and to more effectively reach out to soldiers and their families. Addressing all aspects of a soldier’s life is the most effective suicide prevention, the report concluded.
“Suicide is the tip of the iceberg,” 3rd Infantry Division deputy commander general-rear Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Phillips said. “We have to address the whole iceberg.”
One of the challenges the Army faces in reducing suicides is a pervasive stigma attached to seeking help, Phillips said.
“This is cultural change,” he said, adding the Army has had a number of risk reduction programs in place for years, but didn’t begin to tackle the crisis until two years ago.
About 51 percent of both officers and enlisted soldiers “believe that seeking behavioral health counseling would negatively affect their careers,” according to the Army’s report.
However, perceptions are starting to change.
“People recognize the need for (mental health providers),” said Capt. Jessica Parker, chief of the post’s Warrior Restoration Center. The captain said the number of mental health providers at Fort Stewart has more than doubled in two years. The Army also created 72 new positions for chaplains, according to the report.
In addition, Fort Stewart gained a Suicide Prevention Program manager, Alfrieda Adams, in April. She coordinates her efforts with multiple agencies and clinics on post, including the Alcohol and Drug Control Program. Katherine Haile, Fort Stewart’s Alcohol and Drug Control officer, is one of Adams’ counterparts.
This coordination is especially timely with the expected large-scale redeployment of soldiers from Iraq, Adams and Haile said.
“We will integrate with our community agencies already in place,” Adams said.
The common goal they share, she said, is to reduce suicide risk factors for soldiers assigned to Fort Stewart/Hunter Army Airfield.
A significant approach the Army has taken to reduce suicides is to train soldiers – from commanders, to senior non-commissioned officers, to new recruits – to recognize when an individual is exhibiting warning signs.
“As a community we are saying to soldiers ‘You are not alone,’” Adams said.
She said each soldier now receives an ACE card as part of their suicide intervention training. ACE stands for Ask your buddy (if he or she is having suicidal thoughts), Care for your buddy (by engaging in active, non-judgmental listening) and Escort your buddy (to a chaplain or mental health provider).
“Who we rely on most is the soldier’s battle buddy,” Parker said. “They’re the ones who recognize changes in that soldier.”
The captain said new recruits will receive 10 hours of resiliency training.
“We can teach folks better coping mechanisms,” Parker said. “We teach them how to deal with situations they can’t control.”
NCOs receive master resiliency training, she said. NCOs are trained to teach soldiers how to better manage stress, the captain explained.
Another recommendation the report made is for Army behavioral health officers to stay longer with the troops to whom they are assigned when deployed, Parker said. She said behavioral health officers will remain with their soldiers an additional 60 to 90 days after redeployment to help them readjust to life at home.
“It is stressful when soldiers are reintegrating,” she said. “There is conflict there.”
Troops who are diagnosed as needing counseling when deployed can be linked with appropriate services at their home post before they redeploy, Parker said. An out-patient approach to treatment is best for those who may have had thoughts of suicide, but have never made a suicide attempt, she said.
Editor’s note: This story is the second in a two-part series on the Army’s latest efforts to prevent suicide. Part one was in Wednesday’s Coastal Courier.