Army News Service
The following story originally ran in the Sept. 2, 2010, issue of The Mountaineer. Although Emily Stehr no longer serves on active duty in the Army, she continues to work with Soldiers.
Walking her cousin's dog past a cemetery on a winter day in 2009, Emily Stehr realized she envied the bodies buried there – they had peace.
That was the day she recognized she was suicidal.
"I started to fixate on death, especially my own death. ... I would think of different ways to kill myself," Stehr confessed.
Entering into what she calls a "shroud of suicide," Stehr, a captain now assigned at Fort Drum MEDDAC, battled with a feeling of hopelessness upon returning from a 15-month deployment to Iraq. Stehr had struggled with depression before her deployment, she said, but this was different.
A physical therapist, Stehr helped nurse injured Soldiers of 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment back to health so they could return to the fight – a job, she said, that caused her anger and grief when many of her former patients went on to be killed in combat.
Stehr experienced accumulative trauma and compassion fatigue; she was jittery around crowds, she had trouble sleeping, and her anxiety level increased.
She kept waiting for her life to go back to "normal" after her deployment, but it didn't.
What eventually pushed Stehr to her limit was reading an e-mail from a co-worker downrange who had witnessed the death of a female combat medic.
"For me, that was the straw that broke the camel's back ... I thought, 'I'm done – done with pain, done with life.'"
Stehr said that day she knew she was going to end up either in the hospital or dead. She chose the hospital.
She admitted herself to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Stehr said going in that she was consumed with taking her life, but when she walked out she was determined to live.
"It was quite a transformation to happen in one week. ... I learned that I was sick, but not crazy or defective," she said. "Thankfully, I learned that there is something you can do if you are suicidal."
Stehr began cognitive behavioral therapy and joined a depression-management group. She is learning how to analyze and steer her thoughts.
"I didn't really realize how angry I was," Stehr admitted. "I'm at such a healthier place now where I know how to cope."
Stehr said part of the reason it was hard for her to ask for help is she knew the stigma associated with suicide would follow her.
"No one would say the ‘S’ word," she said. "The stigma tells us that people with mental health problems are crazy or weak or defective. ... I've actually been told that I am a less-quality person because I've had struggles with suicide."
But Stehr wants Soldiers to know that emotional injuries are just as legitimate as physical – they are just invisible. She also said there are repercussions when a healthy person voluntarily elects to die.
"It's like a candle going out and there's less light in the world ... a representation of hope extinguished."
Stehr explained that at her lowest point, she believed no one would miss her if she was gone, but now she knows that her suicide would have hurt many people – namely her husband who has been supportive throughout her struggle.
"Don't believe the lies ... don't believe your thoughts and feelings. You don't have to kill yourself to escape your pain. There is a way out," she said.
Stehr's advice to friends and family members of a person who is battling suicide is to treat it as a medical emergency and to get them to a mental-health professional or hospital as soon as possible.
Stehr has now made it her mission to tell her story in hopes that it will reach and stop those contemplating suicide.
"I'll always tell my story if it will help someone not kill themselves," she said.
And while she still struggles with depression, especially on what she calls “death anniversaries” of friends she has lost, Stehr said suicide is no longer an option.
Her story has already helped others. She recently received word that a social worker's patient accepted treatment after watching a video featuring Stehr.
"That makes everything worth it," Stehr said of what she's been through. "That's my vindication."
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit http://www.armyg1.army.mil/hr/suicide.