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.”