That startling suicide statistic has led to a realization by National Guard units across the country that more effort needs to be spent identifying Guard members who could be suicidal, and getting them the help they need before a tragedy occurs.
During the first nine months of 2012, there were 247 suspected suicides among Army active- and reserve-duty personnel, compared to 222 military deaths among active and reserve personnel from “hostile causes” as of Sept. 28.
Members of the Massachusetts National Guard are as much at risk as their counterparts across the nation, although the number of suicides among Massachusetts Guard members since 9-11 has remained in the single digits, according to Major Gen. L. Scott Rice, adjutant general of the Massachusetts National Guard.
“That’s still more than we have had in the past,” said Major Gen. Rice, although he did not have exact figures.
“Every single one is more,” he said. “Every single one is special, making it important that we figure out why, what and where and how do we make it better for the future.”
With each suicide a tragedy, efforts are now under way to identify and treat Guard members who might be vulnerable, as well as build resiliency among Guard members before they head overseas.
In the commonwealth, those efforts will involve a partnership between the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, the National Guard and the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services.
An announcement of the joint venture was made last week at the medical school by Dr. Michael Collins,
the school’s chancellor; Coleman Nee, secretary of the state Department of Veterans’ Services; Maj. Gen. Rice; and Dr. Barry Feldman, director of psychiatry programs in public safety and assistant professor of psychiatry at
the medical school.
“Working together, we will build a collaborative program that will not only help address the unique health needs of today’s members of the Massachusetts National Guard, but which also can serve as a model for addressing the needs of military members of all branches, as well as veterans, across the nation,” said Dr. Collins.
Nationally, suicides among active and non-active military personnel are increasing. In July alone, a
record 38 confirmed or suspected suicides were recorded, including 26 among active-duty soldiers and 12 among National Guard or reserve soldiers who were not on active duty.
The behavioral health faculty at the medical school will collaborate with the National Guard and the Department of Veterans’ Services to implement suicide prevention strategies specifically designed for military personnel, including training by medical school experts for National Guard personnel in suicide prevention and resiliency building.
The medical school and Veterans’ Services Department participated with the National Guard in a statewide stand down this past September that focused on suicide prevention.
According to Maj. Gen. Rice, there were numerous Guard members who volunteered to be trained to identify comrades who are at risk for suicide, as well as to find them help.
“It’s not an assigned duty,” he said.
Resiliency — helping to fortify Guard members who may go oversees — is also an important feature of the work that will go on between behavioral faculty members and the military, according to Dr. Feldman.
Resiliency training does not mean just preparing Guard members for some of the sites and scenes they may encounter, but also letting them know that the various reactions they may experience are not something they have to keep to themselves.
“They need to know that if they experience feelings that are upsetting, it is all right to talk to others about this,” said Dr. Feldman.
The partnership will also seek and educate civilian medical personnel, who are often the primary medical providers for reserve members and veterans, to prepare them to respond to the unique social, psychological and
medical needs impacting military members and combat veterans. Medical personnel can be trained in the intricacies of military language and acronyms, as well as the confusing myriad of federal, state and military regulations that often prove an obstacle to getting services. Additional training in military culture could also be provided to civilian medical personnel.
According to Dr. Feldman, UMass Medical School has joined more than 100 medical schools around the country in mobilizing its resources “to meet the health care needs of the military and their families.”
There is a national hot line that those in the military or their families can use. The National Suicide Prevention
Lifeline number is (800) 273-8255; press 1 for the Military Crisis Line.