Successful suicide prevention efforts are linked to fostering connectedness – the vital relationships and interpersonal connections that individuals forge with family, friends and their community.
As the Department of Defense begins to observe National Suicide Prevention Month, health officials aim to highlight the importance of those relationships and the risks that come when they are diminished, causing feelings of social isolation and loneliness.
This year’s theme – “Connect to Protect: Support is Within Reach” – “emphasizes connections with others and the community, as well as with suicide prevention resources,” Dr. Karin Orvis, the director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, said.
“During Suicide Prevention Month, the department is collectively reaching out to bring more awareness to suicide prevention and available resources, change the conversation around mental health and well-being, and turn awareness into action,” she said.
Suicide caused the deaths of 498 service members in 2019, the most recent year for which complete DoD data are available. That’s a rate comparable to the U.S. civilian adult population. The deaths in the military were primarily among enlisted men younger than 30.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges, Orvis acknowledged.
“Research indicates that connectedness is a factor that can reduce the likelihood someone will consider or attempt suicide,” she said.
“As the country deals with the ongoing stress and uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic, we, as leaders of the prevention community, have a responsibility to demonstrate what it means to make every connection count for each other,” Orvis said.
Our role in this challenge “is to identify multifaceted approaches that ensure access to care, enhance connectedness, reduce isolation, and promote a sense of belonging in a virtually connected community.”
“We know service members often look to virtual and social media platforms to connect with their families, friends, peers, and communities,” Orvis said. “This year, we can use and promote DoD online resources and services to spread the message of hope and show that support is within reach.”
For leaders, a supportive command environment can help service members feel more comfortable reaching out or seeking help.
The top reasons that service members cite for not getting help include concerns about privacy and confidentiality, fear of being perceived as “broken,” fear of a negative impact to their career, and not knowing whom to contact.
Leaders are encouraged to remind all service members that challenges from military life (as well as everyday life challenges, such as relationships and financial problems) are common, and that they are not alone.
“Share success stories,” Orvis suggested.
Messages DSPO suggests leaders should convey include:
• Provide accurate information and resources. Facts can help to break down common misconceptions about seeking care, such as impacts to security clearances or deployment. Resources show where service members and their families can turn to for support.
• Reach out for help. Seeking help not only ensures mission readiness, but also benefits the service member’s personal well-being, family, unit, service branch and community.
• Seek care early. Promote getting help for life’s challenges or mental health concerns as soon as they arise, such as marriage or financial counseling.
• Suicide is preventable. Show and tell that proactive self-care, coping skills, support and treatment work for most people who have thoughts about suicide.
• Be proactive. Take the steps to reach out for help, ask how others are doing, share resources and stay connected.
Resources include the new Leaders Suicide Prevention Safe Messaging Guide, and the Psychological Health Center of Excellence and its Real Warriors Campaign, which show how to safely and effectively communicate about suicide and how to foster open dialogue within a command.
The Defense Health Agency’s Real Warriors Campaign promotes a culture of support for psychological health by encouraging the military community to reach out for help whether coping with the daily stresses of military life, or concerns like depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress.
A free, confidential program called inTransition offers specialized telephone coaching and assistance for active duty service members, National Guard, reservists, veterans and retirees who need access to a new mental health provider or wish to initiate mental health care for the first time when:
• Relocating to another assignment
• Returning from deployment
• Transitioning between an active duty and a reserve status
• Preparing to leave military service
The inTransition services are available to all military members regardless of length of service or discharge status, by calling 800-424-7877.
Service members and veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a service member or veteran in crisis, can also call the Veterans/Military Crisis Line for confidential support anytime; it’s available 24 hours a day. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. You can also text to 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
In July 2022, a new crisis number, “988,” will be rolled out that will connect directly to the Veterans/Military Crisis Line.
DSPO has been working with the National Action Alliance on Suicide Prevention and the Department of Veterans Affairs on preparing for implementation of the “988” crisis line. Service members, veterans, and their families will still be able to press 1 to get connected immediately to trained responders from the Veterans and Military Crisis Line.
Other sources for assistance include Military OneSource and Military and Family Life Counseling.
“Our military community’s health, safety and well-being are essential to the readiness of the total force – and to the health of our nation,” Orvis said. “Our departments are dedicated to preventing suicide in our military community – every death by suicide is a tragedy.”
“We take this charge very seriously and in conjunction with our partners across the federal government, non-profit, private and academic sectors,” she said, “we will not relent in our efforts to end suicide.”