DOD Takes Public Health Approach to Suicides

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Dec. 05, 2019) -- In September, the Defense Department released a first-of-its-kind report on suicides in the U.S. military. Among other things, the report reveals that active duty suicides have risen over the past five years. For the National Guard, suicides are higher than those of comparable communities within the civilian population.

''We continue to observe heightened risk for our youngest service members and our National Guard members,'' said Karin A. Orvis, Defense Suicide Prevention Office director during a hearing yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, subcommittee on personnel.

The department is concerned about suicide rates across the entire military, Orvis said, adding that suicide numbers ''are not going in the desired direction. The loss of every life is heartbreaking and each one has a deeply personal story.''

Orvis told lawmakers DOD is taking a ''public health approach'' to suicide prevention and laid out several initiatives the department is taking to curb suicides in the military. Those initiatives involve:

-- Strengthening economic support

-- Strengthening access and delivery of suicide care

-- Creating protective environments

-- Promoting connectedness

-- Teaching coping and problem solving skills

-- Identifying and supporting people at risk

-- Lessening harms and preventing future risks

An example of ''identifying and supporting people at risk,'' she said, involves teaching young service members to better see who among them might be at risk for suicide.

''We will be teaching young service members how to recognize and respond to suicide red flags on social media to help others who may be showing warning signs,'' she said.

Supporting the ''strengthening access and delivery of suicide care'' initiative, she said, is a partnership with Veterans Affairs.

''We're partnering with the VA to increase National Guard members' accessibility to mental health care via mobile vet centers during drill weekends,'' she said.

Related Video: Veterans Affairs/DOD Suicide Prevention Conference

The Defense Department has also launched initiatives to reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental healthcare. An example there is a pilot training program meant to address concerns service members might have about seeking mental health care, such as those involving their career, security clearances, loss of privacy and confidentiality.

Orvis said the act of suicide can often be impulsive, and that research shows there can be as little as ten minutes between contemplating suicide and acting on those thoughts. Putting time and distance between an individual and a lethal means may save a life.

To ''create protective environments,'' she said, DOD is creating ''a communications campaign to promote social norms for safe storage of firearms and medication to ensure family safety.''

Regarding ''teaching coping and problem solving skills,'' Orvis said DOD is ''piloting an interactive education program to teach foundational skills early in a member's career to help with everyday life stressors.''

Those skills include such things as rational thinking, emotion regulation and problem solving.

''With each death, we know there are families and often children with shattered lives,'' Orvis said. ''The DOD has the responsibility of supporting and protecting those who protect our country. And it's imperative that we do everything possible to prevent suicide in our military community.''