Health & Safety

October 4, 2012

Knowing your Soldiers key to identifying suicidal signals

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Maj. Vahag Vartanian
Chief of Behavioral Health Department Weed Army Community Hospital NTC and Fort Irwin

Family members, friends, military leaders play a key role in circumventing suicide, as they are the ones who first notice a person’s struggles

September is the designated National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month. However, everyday should be looked at as a day of suicide prevention and awareness. This is especially true in the military community, as we emphasize the “buddy system,” which is a means for servicemembers to always watch out for each other.

Too many times individuals who commit suicide send signals to their friends and family, but the signals are missed. We need to be prompt in getting involved when a friend or loved one seems distressed. In the military environment, leaders have the added responsibility to ensure their subordinates and peers get the help and counseling they need.

Military leaders need to be aware of the usual behavior in their Soldiers, in order for them to be able to notice any changes in their Soldiers’ mood, personality and activity. They’re the ones that need to hear the message first. They need to get involved in their Soldiers’ lives. They can escort the Soldier to a chaplain’s office, the community services, the behavioral health clinic, or any other means of help they can reach.

Unfortunately, it is still a common belief among military members that seeking help for mental health issues can damage their careers. In fact, not seeking help is going to harm their career. Evidence-based research has shown that most people with major psychiatric illness will get better with psychotherapy and medication treatments. This will benefit the SM’s career in the long run, and it will benefit their lives in the long run. One needs to keep in mind that it is not just about one’s military career – it’s about one’s and their family’s well-being; it’s about one’s safety, and; it’s about what one’s long-term plan is for their future.
This is why everyone needs to be aware of and understand the signs and symptoms of suicide, and not to be afraid to ask the question, “Are you feeling suicidal?” Contrary to common belief, this question actually does not put a thought in the distressed person’s head. Hence, it is essential to take action and ask the person in distress, “Do you feel like you could hurt yourself,” “Do you have a plan?” and “How can I help?”

Reasons for suicide are multi-factorial. Some of the major reasons include relationship issues, legal or financial problems, substance abuse problems, and significant personal/family history of psychiatric illness. Other risk factors include the demographics of the individual (i.e. single, Caucasian, male, in mid-20’s). Sometimes, individuals commit suicide without any warning signs. However, most times they will directly or indirectly reveal their plan. For example, they can get involved in more risk-taking activities, such as riding a motorcycle without a helmet, or can give away possessions and make changes in life insurance arrangements. Anyone suspecting possible suicidal impulses in a friend, co-worker or loved one also should be sensitive to changes in moods or behavior patterns, and escort them to get help.

An additional factor that can increase the risk of suicide, which particularly applies to today’s military, is the fact that we have SM’s with multiple, extended deployments. These SM’s do not always display classic signs and symptoms of suicide contemplation. The family members of the SM play a key role in saving lives, in this instance. If they are concerned about a loved one’s state of mind they need to contact commands, chaplains’ offices, community services, or any other means of help they can reach. There are countless ways to reach out for help.

One major military initiative has been the creation of the website, www.preventsuicide.army.mil, which encompasses all the resources available for help. One of the highlights of the website is the emphasis that is placed on the Military Crisis Line. It is for all our men and women in uniform. They need to call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and then press 1 if you’re military. The Military Crisis Line is an overarching and confidential resource. It is the one number to call when one is experiencing any kind of crisis, any kind of suicidal ideation, any thoughts, feelings that one is not sure how to deal with. The crisis line also has an online chat option at http://www.militarycrisisline.net, and a text component reachable by smart phone at 838255. The counselors on the crisis line are compassionate, competent, trained clinicians, who understand military culture, and many are themselves Veterans.

In conclusion, it is important to re-emphasize the key role family members, friends and military leaders/peers play in circumventing a suicide, as they are the ones who first notice a loved one’s struggles, and they are encouraged to reach out through the various means available for help. These resources can be accessed in many ways, any time of the day, from anywhere in the world.

If you or someone you know needs help, please don’t hesitate. The following resources are available here at Fort Irwin and the surrounding communities.

  1. Patients can call 911 after hours or anytime, for help.
  2. Anyone in crisis (suicidal/homicidal or in severe distress) can walk-in to the Behavioral Health Clinic (co-located at the Mary E. Walker Center) Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., without an appointment and receive help.
  3. Patients who are not in crisis, but would like help can also call (760) 380-3631 for appointments.
  4. Patients who live off post can use the Tricare “Find a Provider by Specialty” website:
  5. http://www.triwest.com/OnlineProviderDirectory/SearchProvider.aspx?id=Specialty
  6. Dial 1-800-Suicide (784-2433): a national hotline, which will transfer automatically to the closest office to you.

Also, the website http://suicidehotlines.net/ has numerous phone numbers patients can use.




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