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Hagel: Getting mental health help shows 'courage, honor and integrity'

Sep. 3, 2013 - 01:16PM   |  
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At the outset of Suicide Prevention Awareness month, the Pentagon wants service members experiencing a crisis to make a call.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday that seeking mental health treatment is a “choice that embodies moral courage, honor and integrity” and recommended those who need help call the Military Crisis Line, 800-273-8255, anytime.

“The Department of Defense has no more important responsibility than supporting and protecting those who defend our country, and that means we must do everything possible to prevent military suicide. ... No one who serves this country in uniform should ever feel they have nowhere to turn,” Hagel said in a prepared statement.

This year, at least 157 active-duty and mobilized National Guard and reserve troops died by suicide, according to data provided by the military services.

The pace is down from last year during the same period, but 2012 was a record year for self-inflicted deaths — 350.

Suicide Prevention Office Director Jacqueline Garrick said officials are working to reduce the stigma of seeking behavioral health treatment and promoting programs that stress prevention and intervention during personal crises.

“We are trending below both suicide and suicide attempts from the previous year, although many are still pending cases,” Garrick told Military Times in August. “We hope it is a measure that we are getting our message out and people are seeking help.”

DoD has invested more than $100 million in research on substance abuse and mental health conditions and also is tamping down on alcohol and drug abuse in the ranks, Hagel said.

Pentagon studies have found that most service members who die by suicide are young, white, male and never deployed. Forty-seven percent experienced a failed intimate relationship before they died, and 37 percent faced work-related or legal problems in the months before their deaths.

Roughly 20 percent of the 301 service members who died by suicide in 2011 were found to have been drinking at the time of their deaths, and 9 percent were under the influence of drugs.

But drug and alcohol use were more common in nonfatal attempts, with 64 percent of the 598 troops known to have tried suicide in 2011 using drugs and 31 percent involving alcohol.

A large study of troops by military researchers recently caused waves when it found that combat deployments and exposure to war have not been major factors in military suicides.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that issues like mental health disorders and alcohol abuse played a significant role, as they do in civilian suicides.

The review indicated that being male, drinking heavily and/or suffering from depression or bipolar disorder were associated more with suicide than deployment, regardless of the number of days spent deployed, number of deployments or length of combat exposure.

Experts say that the study findings could hinder efforts to address suicidal behavior among troops and veterans.

“I’m concerned that some might take this and say, ‘It’s not deployments. We don’t need to worry about this,” Barbara Van Dahlen, founder of Give an Hour, a non-profit that provides mental health counseling to personnel and veterans, told the New York Times.

The Veterans Affairs Department earlier this year estimated that about 22 veterans commit suicide each day.

DoD and VA have combined some prevention and treatment efforts, promoting the Military/Veterans Crisis Line and programs to ease the stress of transitioning between active duty and veteran status.

In June, the departments also published clinical practice guidelines for physicians to understand the differences between at-risk troops and civilians.

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