U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta didn't sugar coat it when speaking recently about the increase in the number of suicides by service members. Panetta called it an epidemic, one the armed forces intends to try to corral.
“We are a family, and by God we have to take care of our family members,” he said.
In June, the Pentagon said the number of active-duty military who had died by suicide to that point this year outpaced the number killed in Afghanistan. In July, 38 suicides occurred in the Army alone. As part of suicide prevention month, observed in September, military brass are emphasizing the availability of mental health services and the importance of taking advantage of them.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has a campaign called “Stand by Them.” It's asking individuals and communities to support veterans in crisis and help raise awareness of VA mental health services.
The problem of suicide in the military hits close to home. Oklahoma has three Air Force bases and an Army fort, along with a robust National Guard presence and thousands of military retirees. Tinker Air Force Base has seen two suicides this year; since the beginning of 2011, nine Oklahoma National Guard members and four soldiers stationed at Fort Sill have killed themselves.
Only one of the Fort Sill suicides occurred this year, and in the past decade its average of just more than two per year is lower than most other Army installations. The fort's substance abuse program director credits a strong suicide prevention program and commanding officers who support mental health initiatives.
A similar mindset is found in the Oklahoma National Guard, which has experienced five deaths by suicide this year. Where once it wasn't unusual in some units to stigmatize soldiers who requested mental health treatment, now the opposite occurs. “We're doing the best we can to create an environment where soldiers know it's OK to reach out for help,” said Lt. Col. Max Moss, guard spokesman.
That's an approach that needs to be embraced not just in the military, but among the general population. For far too long, those in need of mental health services have been viewed with a crooked brow by family, friends and coworkers. Indeed suicide itself continues to have a powerful stigma attached — just look at how seldom families choose in obituaries to note that their loved one died by suicide.
Yet according to HeartLine, which offers crisis services in Oklahoma, one person commits suicide every 14 minutes in the United States. The suicide rate for those in the 15-24 age group has more than doubled since the mid-1950s. In Oklahoma, suicide is the No. 2 cause of death among those ages 10 to 24.
The wreckage left behind after a suicide can be devastating. Stillwater will be dealing with that after the death of a middle school student Wednesday. In the eastern Oklahoma town of Stigler on Friday night, football coach Chris Risenhoover had the grim job of informing his players that a popular teammate had been found dead after not showing up for the game. “Basically the entire team was torn in half,” is how Risenhoover described the reaction. “There is a lot of pain there.”
Easing that pain requires the community's help. Preventing others from experiencing it does, too. As we've written before, all Oklahomans should be aware of warning signs and steer friends and neighbors to available resources. One is HeartLine's 2-1-1 hot line. Another is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-8255.