Health & Safety

June 15, 2012

Panetta calls for leadership on suicide prevention

by Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, in an internal memo written last month, addressed the issue of military suicides, calling it one of the most complex and urgent problems facing the department, a Pentagon spokesman said.

In a briefing with reporters, Navy Capt. John Kirby confirmed the accuracy of numbers in news reports indicating that military suicides have risen 18 percent, from 130 in the period from Jan. 1 to June 3, 2011, to 154 in the same period this year.

“We’ve said for many years now how deeply concerned we are about the tragedy of suicides in the military and we recognize that the numbers are going up,” Kirby said.

“If you just compare this year’s numbers … compared to 10 years ago, they’ve doubled,” he added, “and each one is a tragedy.”

Referring to Panetta’s May 10 memo on suicide prevention for Defense Department personnel, Kirby said the secretary makes clear that suicide prevention is, first and foremost, a leadership responsibility.

“To that end,” Panetta wrote, “leaders throughout the chain of command must actively promote a constructive command climate that fosters cohesion and encourages individuals to reach out for help when needed.”

In the memo, he notes that the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness established a Defense Suicide Prevention Office to serve as the focal point for suicide prevention policy, training and programs.

The DOD Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide, established in 2009, recommended the creation of such an office in its 2010 report, “The Challenge and the Promise: Strengthening the force, Preventing Suicide and Saving Lives.”

The suicide prevention office, Panetta wrote, will collaborate with military departments to implement the recommendations of the DOD Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide and serve as the DOD lead with the Veterans Affairs Department and nongovernment organizations on suicide prevention.

“We understand there is a stigma to mental health issues that regrettably persists,” Kirby said.

“The secretary wants to make it very clear to everybody in uniform and their families that there’s nothing stronger you can do for yourself and your family than to come forward and seek some help and seek the counseling that you need,” he added. “And you’ll get it from the department.”

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