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by Elizabeth Jones, M.Div., CADC
For the overwhelming majority, suicide is shocking, devastating. Even more so for those who have to deal with the aftermath, whether personally or professionally.
Soldiers are suffering especially severely. Military suicides have made a marked increase in the past year, even considering the upswing in the military suicide rate over the last decade. The New York Times article of June 8, 2012 reminded me that the military subculture has a unique challenge in saving soldiers from suicide:
“On Friday, Cynthia Smith, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said the Pentagon had sought to remind commanders that those who seek counseling should not be stigmatized. “’This is a troubling issue, and we are committed to getting our service members the help they need,’ she said. ’I want to emphasize that getting help is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength.’”
Even now, in June 2012, many personnel in the armed forces consider going to any sort of therapist, chaplain, or other mental health professional to be a sign of weakness. People who do so are often perceived as “wimps”, “chickens,” less “manly.” This perception still exists, from the lowest enlistee to the upper echelons of the service. And sadly, for those in the service who need support, encouragement, and mental health care, this perception is a real—if invisible—barrier.
Military chaplains and other professional caregivers try to deal with this troubling increase in the suicide rate, on a continuing basis, even as the rate of psychological and emotional distress and disorder in the U.S. military has increased. Even army recruiters are killing themselves in numbers high enough to spark greater concern. [“Why Are Army Recruiters Killing Themselves?” Mark Thomson, Time, April 2, 2009]. [“A General’s Personal Battle,” Dreazen, Yochi J., Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2009]
Military chaplains and other professionals are well aware of this problem. I myself serve as a chaplain, part-time, in a hospital in Chicago—situated in one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse zip codes in the U.S. – and I deal with patients who come in to the hospital as a result of suicide attempts. I am especially trained to be “present” in the room with them, as a gentle, warm, non-anxious visitor.
I became aware of a disconnect between the fields of theology/religion and psychology/psychiatry: the two did not really speak with each other. I worked for a program that was an innovative attempt to bridge that gap, directed by Kalman Kaplan, Ph.D., an expert in suicidology. I saw how his work could be applicable to chaplaincy. It was a mutually beneficial collaboration. We got good results.
Kaplan and I noted that the suicide rate in the active military—as well as the veteran—population was substantially higher than in the general civilian population.
Since suicide in the military is a many-faceted problem, it will not be easy to fix. However, based on Kaplan’s program, I have a suggestion that is proven to help, in my experience.
My particular focus with the hospital, military and veteran populations was—and is—one of healthy self-esteem. I suggest that a healthy self-esteem assists in many ways, both for the internal thoughts (or, integration of self) as well as relationship with others. Being a Christian chaplain, my point of reference is healthy self-esteem based on a warm relationship with a loving Heavenly Creator. Each person is created as a unique individual, and special in God’s eyes. But I realize that there are many different understandings of God, or the Higher Power. This will help each person be the best “you” that each one can be, and go a long way towards minimizing harmful, destructive behaviors. While it is not conventional to bring a ‘higher power’ discussion into suicide prevention, we found, as with addiction, it was an effective tool in many cases.
Dr. Kaplan often said: When individuals have already determined on committing suicide, it’s too late; they are too far down stream. By that time, chaplains or therapists have a difficult time convincing them not to do it. The time to intervene is before they reach that point, while they are still contemplating the possibility, and the act of suicide is not yet a reality in their minds.
Several years ago, I visited a young man who was being stabilized after a suicide attempt. He was awake, aware, and open to discussion. We talked about why he was in the hospital, what he had attempted to do, and possible repercussions. Gently, I introduced the hopeful Biblical understanding of positive self-esteem, using verses from Genesis 1 and Psalm 139. We talked about his view of God.
Then I asked him whether a hopeful view of a loving God might make a difference to him. He seriously considered that question, and nodded slowly. He thought it would. I encouraged him further, and left the patient in a more hopeful, positive state of mind. I have had other successes in helping suicidal patients by introducing this concept of a loving God. I recognize that in a country with a Church-State divide, this can be problematic – but the success of the approach, as with addiction, is worth looking at when it comes to suicidality in our armed forces. [“Suicide Prevention or Life Promotion? A Biblical Way of Dealing with Life’s Darkest Times, Jones, Elizabeth, ” Journal of Christian Nursing, July/September 2010, 252-257]
I applaud the military chaplains and mental health workers for their continued hard work, and encourage caregivers to look at the ‘Higher Power” model that has been so effective in twelve-step programs, in their work with suicidal soldiers. I hope and pray it has a beneficial effect, soon.
:: The Conway, Ark., grave of Army Spc. Josh Farmer, seen on April 17, 2010. Farmer died by suicide on Sept. 20, 2009. U.S. Army photo by SSG Jim Greenhill via Creative Commons license ::
Elizabeth serves part-time as Chaplain at Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago, where she handles crisis and trauma intervention, counsels patients on issues with substance abuse, and works with patients from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.