The report acknowledges that the physical and psychological demands on our volunteer fighting forces are huge. Between 2005 and 2009 alone, more than 1,100 soldiers committed suicide. That is one soldier dying by suicide every 36 hours. The report notes that the rate of suicide deaths in the Army has more than doubled.
The task force mentions numerous research reports that have documented the psychological and emotional injuries — “the hidden wounds of war” — that have devastated many military members and their families. Personnel who are deploying — as well as those left behind — are under stress because of an imbalance created by inadequate manpower. Consequently, military personnel are not getting enough downtime with their families and communities before they are required to return to combat.
Based on their own findings, the DOD task force believes that unless effective prevention measures are put into place, the rate of suicide deaths will continue to rise.
Every day the people who have volunteered to protect us put themselves in the line of fire, both physically and psychologically. The stress of knowing how many people are depending on them must be enormous. Is it any wonder that many members of the armed forces are facing mental health challenges? Yet, as has happened in past global conflicts, their emotional and psychological needs are slipping through the cracks of a flawed system.
But it’s not just the military system that’s flawed — so is the mental health system. In general, there still exists a great deal of stigma surrounding people who have a mental illness. In their report, the DOD task force points out that many military personnel encounter discriminatory and humiliating experiences when they seek psychological help. This leaves soldiers feeling as if they have nowhere to turn and, as evidenced by the increasing rate of suicide deaths, they are losing hope.
An unwritten bit of White House policy continues to stigmatize soldiers with mental illness even in death. That policy dictates that families of servicemen and -women who have died by suicide — even if it takes place on a war front — are not sent a letter of condolence from the president.
It is thought that this policy came about sometime during the Clinton administration and has been passed down through the White House protocol officers. There is no discernible, clearcut reason as to why this policy began; however, the White House hints that it may have started in part because suicide is not viewed as an honorable way to die.
This policy is a big slap in the face to all of us who live with a mental illness and to our families as well. What it says — in a very public way — is that those who have tried to take their own lives should be ashamed. It tells the families of people who have died by suicide that they should be ashamed of their loved ones. This policy adds to society’s stigmatized view of people who have a mental illness.
Where does this policy leave our soldiers and their families? It leaves them in a vulnerable position, making it more difficult for them to reach out for help. Death by suicide does not negate what a serviceman or -woman has done for his or her country. It does not take away the sacrifice of time, energy, physical health and mental health that many of our soldiers have given. However, that is just what this White House policy does.
Doing away with this discriminatory practice would speak volumes to society at large and to military troops. A simple letter of condolence to a family suffering from the aftershock of losing a loved one to suicide would go a long way in reducing shame and guilt. It would also demonstrate to our troops that there is no shame in having a mental illness. The White House is currently reviewing this policy, but as of mid-October 2010 had not made a decision one way or another about doing away with it.
A copy of the report cited in this article can be found here (PDF, 5.6 MB).