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White House Policy Adding To Stigma Of Suicide

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A Department Of Defense task force dedicated to preventing suicide in the military recently released a report with some disturbing facts about suicide deaths in the military. The report states that from 2005 to 2009 alone, more than 1,100 soldiers have died by suicide. That is 1 soldier dying by suicide every 36 hours. The report notes that the rate of suicide deaths in the Army has more than doubled.

The task force mentions numerous research reports that have documented the psychological and emotional injuries – “the hidden wounds of war” – that have devastated many military members and their families. They go on to discuss the stress and strain that is on the personnel that are deploying – as well as those left in garrison – due to an imbalance that has been created because the demands being made on the military cannot be met by the current available man-power. Part of the consequences of this imbalance, is that military personal are not getting enough “down time” with their families and communities before they are required to return to combat. Based on their own findings, the Department of Defense task force believes that unless effective prevention measures are put into place, the rate of suicide deaths will continue to rise.

Everyday the people who have volunteered to protect me put themselves in the line of fire, both physically and psychologically. Whether they are deployed overseas or are working hard to support their fellow soldiers from bases located on friendly soil. The stress of knowing how many people are depending on them must be enormous. Is it any wonder that many of the men and women who are in the Armed Forces are facing mental health challenges of their own? Yet, like has happened in past global conflicts, their emotional and psychological needs are slipping through the cracks of a flawed system.

I am not just talking about a flawed military system, I am also referring to a flawed mental health system. In general, there still exists a great deal of stigma about people who have a mental health issue/mental illness. In their report, the Department of Defense task force points out that many military personal encounter discriminatory and humiliating experiences when they seek psychological help. This leaves our soldiers feeling as if they have no where to turn and as evidenced by the increasing rate of suicide deaths, they are losing hope.

It seems that an unwritten bit of White House policy continues to stigmatize soldiers with a mental health issue/mental illness even in death. That policy dictates that families of service men and women who have died by suicide – even if it takes place on a war front – are not sent a letter of condolence from the president. It is thought that this policy came about sometime during the Clinton administration and has been passed from administration to administration through the White House protocol officers. There is no discernible clear cut reason as to why this policy began, however, the White House Administration hints that it may have started – in part – because suicide is not viewed as an honorable way to die.

I believe that this policy is a big slap in the face to all of us who live with a mental illness and our families as well. What it says – in a very public way – is that if we have tried to take our own lives we should be ashamed. It tells the families of people who have died by suicide that they should be ashamed of their loved ones. This policy adds to society’s stigmatized view of people who have a mental illness. Where does this policy leave our soldiers and their families? I think it leaves them in a vulnerable position, making it more difficult for them to reach out for help. Death by suicide does not negate what a service man or woman has done for his/her country. It does not take way the sacrifice of time, energy, physical health and mental health that many of our soldiers have given. However, that is just what this White House policy does.

Doing away with this discriminatory practice would speak volumes to our society and military troops. A simple letter of condolence to a family suffering from the after shock of losing a loved one to suicide would go a long way in reducing any shame and guilt they may be feeling. It would also symbolize to our military troops that there is no shame in having a mental health issue/mental illness. The White House is currently reviewing this policy, but as of yet, has not made a decision one way or another about whether it should be stopped.

I do not understand why it takes a review process to decide to do away with a policy that is not even written down. It is a simple matter of protocol. No big deal was made to implement it in the first place, it seems to me that it can be withdrawn just as easily. As my daughter said “It should not take thinking time to get rid of it.”

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About MelissaShell

  • Barbara

    Thank you Melissa,for your courage in pointing out these startling facts. As a mom whose son in law just joined the Marines and may be deployed, and a mental health service evaluator, I am very concerned with stigma’s damaging effects and at how unfriendly some military branches seem to be toward married marines. I worry about my daughter’s mental health, too, being married to a wonderful man, who is controlled by an organization (Marines) that doesn’t recognize she (my daughter, his wife) exists. I’m also concerned with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and how devastating it can be for those who protect us. Actually, I wonder how many servicepeople who committed or attempted suicide were frustrated because they were gay (or bi, transgendered or questioning!) and couldn’t be honest about it in the military. There is no excuse for this practice to continue. I urge my President, Barack Obama, in whom I have utmost faith, (and who I helped put in office as a volunteer for the Democrats and precinct chair of the Primary Caucus here in TX, as well as precinct chair of Obama’s campaign)to step up and do away with with these stigma-exacerbating practices and urge the military to be more family friendly, whether the family is a traditional male/female one or an alternative version. We cannot dictate who others can love. Nor should we. When we try, we do create more mental health challenges. Thanks again, Melissa!

  • I also have a son in the Marines, and my daughter-in-law is in the Navy. When I was writing this, I kept thinking about them. Just the fact they they are married and in the military adds to their stress. Being in different branches of the military adds to that stress. Now they are having to be separated because my daughter-in-law is going to a new duty station. I worry about the toll all of this is taking on them.

    I do realize they both volunteered, and both made a conscious decision to get married. I am not asking for them to be given any special treatment, but I do wish that there it was easier for them to get some extra help to aid them in this time of added stress.

  • John Lake

    I am not entirely content with viewing suicide, or the harboring of suicidal inclinations as a mental health issue. For generations, men going into battle have been instilled with the idea that “the enemy” — those we are fighting — is somehow, less than human. This instillation is intentional and might even be necessary. Soldiers coming back from battle are often coarsened; desensitized and hardened.
    In a war, such as the World Wars of the past, fighting and killing was sensible, and courageous. But current wars, such as the invasion and its aftermath in Iraq, the “courageous” factor is not as cut and dried. The government would have us believe that the “insurgency” in Iraq, and Afghanistan, are enemy fighters from distant places “surging in” to war with our troops. The fact is, an insurgent is a “person or group that rises in revolt against authority”; The International law definition goes on to say that such insurgent conduct does not rise to the level of belligerency. There is no reference to “coming in from a distant place”.
    An insurgent then may be a man or woman fighting to defend his family, his home and culture. So, when an American soldier is compelled to kill or fire upon such individuals, he may well have second thoughts. He may be tried beyond his capacity.
    If behavior is not consistent with normal thinking, it may be a mental health issue. But when behavior is rational (although in the case of suicide, self-destructive) it may not necessarily be viewed in that light.

  • Melissa Mashburn, thank you for your heartfelt and sympathetic article. As a fellow Blogcritics contributor who has also written here about Military Suicide, I’m grateful to see someone else taking up this important issue, especially a person with your background as a mental health activist.

    By contrast, John Lake (comment #3) fails to understand suicidal behavior and lacks compassion towards those beset by such feelings. Entirely without foundation, he suggests that rising rates of military suicide are connected to guilt on the part of servicemembers who are compelled to fight an unjust war.

    Don’t get me wrong. I don’t subscribe to the idea that self-destruction is by definition irrational, i.e., mentally unsound. It may be, but not always. But it is utterly irresponsible to explain away military suicides as a rational, conscientious reaction by servicemembers to our disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As reported in my article cited above, the latest Army data shows that soldiers with one or no deployments represent 79% of all suicides. This is a problem that goes much deeper than John Lake’s frigid and superficial analysis indicates.

  • Regena Shell

    Very well written, Melissa. Our military folks are serving under very difficult circumstances and they and their families should never have reason to doubt that the leaders of this country have anything but the greatest respect for their service and their sacrifice.

  • John Lake

    Alan Kurtz:
    The ‘one or no deployments’ statement is deceptive. as we have discussed before, the vast majority of these suicides are during the first deployment. They are not a response to a philosophical concept; they are a response to having to target relatively innocent people who are in many cases acting courageously. In Afghanistan, they may be a reaction to the extreme number of non-involved citizens killed or wounded unintentionally.

  • And you know this how?

  • Bob

    The American mental health system wants to blaim the military, society, the family, and everyone elso for the self-serving stigma it creates to justify its fees. The fact is stigma is generated from unaccountable, and unreliable psych lingo. Many including physicians have been aware of the fact for decades. The documented patient abuse by staff, and the resultant stigma makes one ponder if indeed mental health treatment is truly healthy for anyone?

  • Bill

    American physicians have a high rate of suicide; and yet, American physicians tend to refuse mental health treatment. Physicians report that any involvement with mental health treatment negatively effects one’s career, and harms family and social relationships. Now if physicins tend to report this should not we review mental health practices, and independently investigate is documented abuses against patients by staff members?

  • Bill

    In 1999 the U.S. Congress held closed-door hearings in regarding to the documented abuses of patients (even little children) by staff in American mental health facilities. These hearings were the result of an age 12 boy being savagely beaten, and killed by staff on an American psych ward. The American public has not heard the results of these hearings, nor has the American media taken any interest in reporting upon the dismal history of mental health practices in America. Should not all governmental funding to mental health be stopped, until an really independent study is made, in regard to what harm psych practices have been doing to people for decades? Systemic psych caused stigma, and patient abuse should never be tolerated.

  • Bill

    For too long the documented abuses of the American mental health system, have been kicked under the rug, and seldom reported by the media. All financial allocations to mental health, need to be suspended until a full scale investigation is completed, and a better more accountable method is formulated. American physicians from all specialties, should be part of any psych work up whatsoever. Everyone knows that psychologists are not doctors, nor highly qualified heathcare professions. Psychologists should always be carefully supervised by our wonderful nurses, and physicians. Psychologists are not truly independent heathcare professionals.

  • Jean

    I think everyone who responded to this article should write a letter to the White House asking that this policy be stopped immediately. In addition, ask your friends to also write letters. Maybe, if they the “review committee” gets enough letters, they will act on it. Also, if your want to make a difference, volunteer with Hidden Wounds and Wounded Warriors. Our Warriors need us more than ever, please we can’t let them down.