This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
As soldiers return from war zones and try to adjust to life on the home front, some are finding that they can’t cope. They survived combat, but face a threat potentially as dangerous in country: themselves.
In July, the Army reported it was investigating 32 possible suicides, more than in any previous month in the past two years. So far this year, at least 11 possible suicides have been investigated at Joint Base Lewis-McChord alone.
The Army is so concerned about how many soldiers are taking their own lives that it expanded last week’s National Suicide Prevention week into Suicide Prevention Month. It has taken a number of welcome steps to help address the problem of suicide in the ranks, including suicide-prevention education and training for first-line supervisors and junior officers to intervene early when they see problems developing.
Locally, Madigan Army Medical Center has increased the number of behavioral health specialists, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord has hired a new suicide-prevention officer.
But that all goes for naught if soldiers still have the impression that seeking help might be seen as a weakness – one that might lead to poor evaluations and interfere with promotions. Better just to “soldier on,” they might think – even as they inch closer to the abyss.
It’s a problem Yelm social worker Patricia Bailey is trying to get the Army to officially address. She’s circulating a petition asking the military and federal lawmakers to adopt a firm policy declaring that service members’ careers won’t be penalized for seeking help for mental health issues.
That might sound unnecessary, but it is a very real problem, according to a recent study by the nonprofit RAND Corporation. Researchers found that the military has not taken steps to reverse the widely held perception that seeking mental health help could hurt service members’ chances for promotion or lead to their being forced to retire on medical grounds.
With thousands of soldiers returning from war – sometimes after multiple deployments – it’s inevitable that the military will see a surge in the kind of post-traumatic stress conditions that can lead to thoughts of suicide. It shouldn’t take a petition from a concerned Thurston County woman to get the Army to do more to remove the stigma that remains attached to mental health issues.
Military members or their families can seek help for emotional problems by calling 1-800-342-9647. Call JBLM’s drop-in clinic at 253-968-5140. Guard members and their families can call 1-877-585-5655 for resources and referrals.