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Reach out & touch somebody

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Soldiers need to move a little closer into each other’s personal space after deployments to help prevent problems that may lead to suicide, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel told Army National Guardsmen and others at a suicide prevention meeting.

“There’s a phenomenon today, … a little bit of reluctance to reach out and touch somebody, to get inside someone’s personal space,” Lt. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle said. “We have to help our junior−level leaders understand that in this particular dilemma, we have to get inside that space. We have to reach out and touch someone, and we have to be willing to intervene on their behalf in order to prevent the next suicide.”

Rochelle also said that ending a policy that excused citizen−soldiers from monthly drills for 90 days after deployment was a step in the right direction. While the policy was created with good intentions, the unintended effect was to reduce soldier’s contact with others when they needed it most, he said.

Rochelle made his remarks March 16 to program managers, trainers, and support personnel from across the nation who attended three days of suicide prevention training here hosted by the Army National Guard’s Soldier Family Support and Services division.

Maj. Gen. James W. Nuttall, deputy director of the Army National Guard, said suicides in the military now surpass the suicide rate in the general population. The Army has the highest rate in the military, and the Army National Guard has the highest rate of the Army’s three components.

“It’s critical for us to get our arms around this,” Nuttall said.

Soldiers need to have contact with colleagues in their unit, and those in their chain of command need to be able to look them in the eye to determine if they might be having problems, Rochelle said.

“We all know that a senior or a subordinate needs to look every one of us in the eye within a period of time after redeployment – just do that gut−check, ‘Is everything going OK? Is everything all right?’” he said.

Leaders at all levels need to be educated in suicide warning signs, Rochelle said, especially at the company level and below. “Platoon sergeants, squad leaders, team leaders, company commanders and first sergeants are missing the signs,” he said.

The training focused on developing state suicide prevention programs that include intervention and something presenters call “postvention,” meaning responding to the aftermath of a completed or attempted suicide.

Drawing on a study conducted after a wave of suspected suicides at an Army post, Rochelle suggested other improvements:

−− More resources: “We don’t have enough behavioral help at the brigade level,” he said.

−− More counselors: “We can’t hire enough Army substance abuse counselors and … specialists to meet the demand,” he said.

Some specific challenges related to suicide haven’t changed through the years, Rochelle said. One study found that the average age of suicides in the military during World War II was 22 – the same as today, he said.

During World War II, “the likelihood increased with time in service,” he said. “Responsibi­lities, as they increase with time in service and grade, heightens the level of stigma associated with seeking help. That’s the same problem we are confronting today.”

Making it socially acceptable to get help is the No. 1 priority to reducing suicide, Rochelle said. “Our biggest challenge is reducing the stigma,” he said. A bright spot: Rochelle said he was encouraged by a visit to Afghanistan where he saw soldiers openly lining up to talk with a counselor after a mission.

Rochelle and his colleagues studied the facts surrounding 15 confirmed servicemember suicides. Some of what they found defied stereotypes:

−− Sixty percent had no deployment history. “That’s causing us to go back and ask some questions about the enlistment history – the behavioral health history – of new, junior−level individuals,” he said.

−− Relationships were a contributing factor in 75 percent of the cases. “That doesn’t mean that that was the major contributing factor. It may have been an aggravating factor – but it was a factor,” he said.

−− Half of the cases involved some unit integration or reintegration issues. “We all know how important that is,” he said. “In [the continental United States], it’s important. It’s doubly important for a junior enlisted soldier forward−­deployed.”

−− Half the cases involved some substance abuse, with alcohol and prescription medication being the biggest problems. “It’s most especially alcohol,” he said.

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