Fort Drum officials took time last week to address the insider threat of suicide. Because an incredible amount of resources and programs on and off post make it nearly impossible to not find help for one’s personal issues, officials said there is great sadness in knowing that some Soldiers still see no way out.
“In reviewing the cases that I get from events on the installation, it saddens me to no end to hear time and time again that our Soldiers feel they are all alone and there is nobody out there who cares or who can help them,” said Lori Starr, Suicide Prevention Program manager. “In reality, they have more support than they will ever recognize.”
According to experts here, suicide – what an individual may perceive as the ultimate solution to his or her problems – is typically not the first self-destructive consideration of someone who has fallen on hard times.
Stress, whether from military work, relationships at home or financial difficulties, may lead someone to turn to unhealthy activities as a first line of defense, which can include alcohol or substance abuse, said Albert Mack, Fort Drum’s Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program Prevention Branch chief.
He said things like alcohol and other substances reduce inhibitions and change people’s perception on how they really feel about their situation.
“Alcohol and substance abuse are what some think are solutions to their problems,” Mack said. “But it will actually intensify your problems. If you have a financial problem and you turn to drinking, you will have more financial problems. If you also have a family, it contributes to your relationship issues.
“It contributes to that downward spiral and that hopelessness that people have sometimes,” he added. “They think: ‘Nothing is going to go right.’ That will continue to be that way unless you look at the problem. When you address issues, you find out that they can be resolved.”
‘Sign of strength’
Starr said having “suicide” as a part of her job title is a bit of a misnomer. Dealing with suicide prevention means her office focuses on more than a dozen other issues that can lead to a person’s life becoming so unmanageable that suicide becomes an option.
“Our resources are not just about who to call if you are feeling suicidal, but who can you contact if you are experiencing financial stress or relationship stress or a difficult time in the workplace,” she said.
In addition to Soldiers, resources are available to Family Members and Civilian Employees, too.
But Starr said that the fact that many Soldiers believe in and possibly reinforce the stigma attached to visiting the ASAP and Suicide Prevention Program building means there is still a gap between what Soldiers think and the actual range of help and support available.
“The (stigma) is in the title itself,” Starr said. “People don’t want to come up to your table if it has ‘suicide’ across the front of it. That’s why there’s so much overlap with these other organizations and why we partner with ASAP, the Family Advocacy Program and others.”
Starr and Mack repeatedly emphasized how inclusive the programs and resources really are to the general Soldier population. Although health advocates on post wish to assist individuals at the end of their rope, they also want to help those with no history of suicidal behavior.
“Our programs focus on high stress areas … (and) our efforts focus on reducing the stigma attached with getting help,” Starr said.
Mack said it is important that leaders support the idea of people getting the help they need.
“One of the things I believe is important is for leadership to promote the idea that if people are having a problem and they are looking for ways to resolve their issues, that is not a sign of weakness; that is a sign of strength,” he said.
Command climate, gatekeepers
It may come as a surprise to some that the sergeant major of the Army was himself a consumer of behavioral health services.
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III has been quite open about his not-so-distant past struggles with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury stemming from a 2004 incident in Baghdad where his position was struck by a 122 mm rocket.
Before becoming sergeant major of the Army in 2011, Chandler told the Army chief of staff during his interview that he had been in behavioral health care counseling for the previous two years – and he still got the job.
“He got help before he became sergeant major of the Army,” Starr said. “I try to drill that into our Soldiers. Did his accessing mental health support have a negative effect on his career? No.
“We all need a little bit of help now and again in our lives,” she added. “It will not have a negative effect on a person’s career if they are trying to do right by themselves.”
Starr said that suicide seems to affect all segments of the Soldier population, whether previously deployed or not, high-performing or not.
She also pointed out that she hopes to extend the excellent working relationships she has with the division’s brigade and battalion commanders to the company commanders, platoon leaders and squad leaders.
“We want to educate leadership at the ground level on how to identify (issues) with their Soldier before it gets to the point where that Soldier is exhibiting suicidal behavior,” she said.
Possibly one of the fastest prevention vehicles to reaching troops at the ground level is through the program’s “gatekeepers,” professionally trained Soldiers at the platoon level that are equipped to handle a person in crisis.
“Soldiers are beginning to realize that they have people they can talk to,” Starr said. “If they want to go to someone other than their leadership or other than behavioral health, they can initiate contact with those gatekeepers.
“And if Soldiers are accessing help, leaders should encourage them and continue to foster resiliency in their lives,” she added.
Despite the pain that is associated with such a difficult topic, Starr said she is grateful for the silver linings of the Suicide Prevention Program at Fort Drum.
“The positive in something that can be very negative is that we have a lot of great Soldiers doing fabulous work out there,” she said.
Starr said the majority of events on post are Soldiers who are thinking about suicidal behavior. In summary reports she receives from the units, she is encouraged by the success stories.
“We have had a lot of fabulous saves by people who took the time to step in and intervene,” she said. “(Soldiers) are able to intervene because they took the time to pay attention and have those conversations.”
Intervening is something Starr asks of Soldiers’ friends and Family Members as well.
“If they wish to reach out to our program because they are concerned about a Soldier of theirs, they absolutely can do that,” she said. “(Some) get worried their Soldier will be mad at them. But by you calling us, you are ensuring the fact that they will be getting the help they need in a safe environment.”
Starr practically pleads with the community to continue reaching out to those who may be suffering in silence.
“I personally don’t have to meet the individual to feel the impact of their personal struggles,” she said. “There is help out there. They just have to be willing to recognize that they need help and know that it is OK to ask for it.”
Assistance is available 24 hours a day / seven days a week at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).