Why Preventing Suicides Within the Military Is a Nationwide Issue

Last week, the Associated Press released data showing that there were more suicides in the military this spring than ever before. If this trend continues, 2012 could set a record for military suicides.

RAND and the Department of Defense, along with other organizations, have been working to prevent suicides for years, so this news was alarming and even personally disturbing. While we can't say how many suicides have been prevented by suicide prevention programs and policies, it shows that we need to do more.

RAND conducted a study that resulted in several recommendations for suicide prevention in the military. Two of these deserve special attention. First, we recommend that a comprehensive suicide prevention strategy facilitate access to quality behavioral health care. This means removing barriers that prevent service members from accessing health care when they need it.

Soldiers have repeatedly told us that they fear negative consequences to their careers if they seek behavioral health care. We do not know how many times security clearances have been denied or patient-provider confidentiality has been breached when service members have sought such treatment.

However, current policy gives military personnel the impression that both are possible, creating so-called mental health stigma. Rather, it can be viewed as a concern about discrimination against those seeking behavioral treatment and should be addressed.

Second, we suggested that the military consider creative and professionally appropriate ways to limit the use of lethal means. Studies have shown that the unavailability or inaccessibility of suicide equipment may deter some individuals from choosing suicide. Among soldiers, most suicides are committed with firearms and often with personal weapons.

This means that the military should seriously review its policy on the distribution and storage of military weapons and ammunition in garrisons. It also raises questions about whether military leaders should promote the use of personal firearms, for example by selling them on bases, and how military personnel are trained to properly handle and store personal firearms.

The military, RAND and other organizations have been working on suicide prevention for some time, but it is clear that further action is needed. One of the most successful programs is the Air Force's suicide prevention program. Since its introduction, the number of pilot suicides has decreased by 33%.

The novelty of the program was that it was intended to change the culture of the Air Force by integrating suicide prevention best practices into many of its daily activities. Nationwide outreach will require the efforts of organizations outside the military. Quality, affordable and accessible behavioral care for those who need it, as well as employment and training opportunities for soldiers and their families who choose to end their military careers.

At the same time, a sensible gun control policy is needed. Families and friends of those who have lost a loved one to suicide must be offered respectful services and policies to assist them in their grief.

The number of suicides in the military is a reminder to those of us in the prevention field that we must remain vigilant and work even harder. Let this also be a wake-up call for the nation to take some responsibility. The comments provide a forum for RAND researchers to share their experiences, often based on their own review and analysis.

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