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Rick Gross, Prevention Coordinator, Army Substance Abuse Program
Suicide Awareness Month - Keep It Local

Suicide.  It is a topic that those affiliated with the Army are familiar with.  Whether through one’s own personal or family experience; experiences in one’s unit or larger social circle; or just awareness of the Army’s high suicide rate; suicide is an often-present topic when you are in the Army family.

Before I address the issue of suicide itself, it is important to understand the context of the Army’s problem.  According to the Calendar Year 2015 DoD Suicide Event Report Annual Report (http://t2health.dcoe.mil/sites/default/files/DoDSER_2015_Annual_Report.pdf), the Army’s rate of suicide was 24.4 per 100,000 Service Members.  The rate in the general population is 13.0 in 2014 according to the CDC.  Notably, if adjusted for age and gender differences, these two rates would be similar.  The rate in the Army is slightly higher than the Air Force (20.5 per 100,000) and Marine Corps (21.2 per 100,000), but statistically comparable.  The Navy has a statistically lower rate (13.1) than the other three branches.

More concerning is this: from 2003 to 2009 the Army rate of suicide climbed steadily.  It used to be that the Army was a safety net, in a sense, from suicide risk.  The rate was half that of the general population.  As you can see, that is no longer the case.

There is not enough data or evidence to say for sure what is behind this intense rise in suicide.  What we can say with certainty is that many people in the Army family suffer so much and face such hopelessness that ending their own life is perceived as a reasonable option.

The source of suffering is different for each person.  Many Ssoldiers and veterans, especially those who have seen combat, walk around with an entire world inside their head that few can understand.  For others, Soldier and civilian alike, the hidden pain of broken relationships, struggles with addiction, or financial or other burdens weigh on them deeply.  Whatever the primary source of suffering we know another thing about those who commit suicide: most of them felt like they were carrying the burden alone.

I can say this with some certainty because of survivors’ testimonies.  There are plenty of them available to read or watch on the internet.  Virtually all of them say a variation of, “I felt so alone, like no one cared or that I was better off dead to those that did care.”  This “alone-ness” is the real enemy that we fight against in the month of September, Suicide Awareness Month.

During this month, I encourage you to start on the smallest possible level.  Ask friends and family members how they are doing.  Let them know you care.  Then, as days go by, extend the conversations to people you don’t know quite as well: the neighbor you see every day but don’t talk to, or the classmate that is often alone at lunch.  Say hello to them, smile, express gratitude for something they do.  You never know who is walking around with a heavy burden, and reaching out can make a big difference.

With a Soldier population of less than 1,000 at Carlisle Barracks, statistically we should have zero suicides each year.  The good news is that most years we meet that standard.  On the other hand, even a brief survey of colleagues and acquaintances at Carlisle Barracks showed me that most of them have been affected by suicide in the last three years, and one of those suicides was someone affiliated with the installation.  This September, let’s commit as a community to preventing any preventable deaths on this base, starting with suicide.  And let’s do that by starting in our immediate circle of family and friends, and extending it out to those we don’t know so well.

For more information, trainings are available throughout the month:

Wednesday, Sept. 6, 1:30 – 3 p.m. in Bradley Auditorium

Tuesday, Sept. 12, 10 – 11:30 a.m. in the Memorial Chapel

Thursday, Sept. 21, 1:30 – 3 p.m. in the Memorial Chapel

Thursday, Sept. 28, 2 – 3:30 p.m. in Bradley Auditorium