ARLINGTON, Va. – The Department of Defense’s 2018 Annual Suicide Report released Thursday indicates the National Guard has the highest suicide rate of all military components, underscoring the significant challenges it faces preventing Soldiers and Airmen from taking their own lives.
“I have a hard time expressing in words how far-reaching and impactful the loss of a member is,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Dawne Deskins, director of the National Guard Bureau’s manpower and operations directorate. “Every suicide is a brother, sister, father, mother, son, daughter – someone important to our National Guard family [who] we have lost.”
In July, the directorate established the Suicide Prevention and Readiness Initiative for National Guard, which helps Guard units identify risk factors and proven effective interventions.
“It’s [about] looking holistically at evidence-based solutions and how to make decisions that are informed by data and information, and not just taking a ‘best guess’ at how to solve this,” said Capt. Matthew Kleiman, a U.S. Public Health Service officer and the principal adviser to the chief of the NGB on psychological health and resiliency. “At the end of the day, we want to support anything where evidence shows [what] could be effective.”
Kleiman said part of establishing that kind of support involves taking a decentralized approach in combating suicides.
“To address some of these issues is to initiate programs that look at this through a local lens, and recognizing [the NGB] is not going to have all the answers [that] impact the 450,000 men and women across the 54 states, territories [and Washington, D.C.,]” he said.
As an example of this grassroots approach, Kleiman said the NGB has set up the Warrior Resilience and Fitness Innovation Incubator. “With this, we are funding states [that] have innovative practices and ideas about how we solve these problems locally,” he said. “So if it works, the NGB can start to connect states together to be able to implement solutions on a broader scale.”
Other initiatives have been started in 2019, such as the Veteran Center Outreach Initiative, a (Department of) Veterans Affairs program that allows Guard members living in remote locations to take advantage of behavioral health care support. And in June, the DoD and the VA formed a partnership that provides similar services to Guard members during training periods and drill weekends.
“People sometimes make assumptions that because [Guard members] are in uniform, they have access to all the same kind of services that someone in the [active-duty] components would have,” said Kleiman. “For Guard members, that’s not always true, [so] we have to find creative ways through partnerships and resources to provide support.”
These kind of partnerships and others, said Kleiman, are important so troubled Guard members know they can and should get help, “even if it’s not through a military provider or a federal resource.”
Having a check-the-box mentality, he added, is not going to effectively address the issue of suicide.
“[This] is not just about an updated training model that once a year you go to and [look at] a bunch of PowerPoint slides,” he said. “That’s not going to get us where we need to be.”
One way to break down the barriers of getting help is to dispel myths often associated with Guard members who seek that help, Kleiman said.
“The perception that if you go and get help for a behavioral or mental health issue is that it’s going to have far-reaching career implications,” he said. “The vast majority of individuals who come forward seeking help for a problem do not lose their clearance and do not have career impact.”
Kleiman said it benefits Guard members to come forward as soon as they start experiencing potentially damaging or unmanageable stressors in their lives.
“Seeking help early, before a problem escalates into a more serious crisis, can lead to improved outcomes and have a positive impact on career,” he said.
But, for Soldiers and Airmen to come forward, Deskins said all Guard members – not just leadership – share the responsibility of creating and maintaining a climate of trust.
“It takes a culture of trust to destigmatize [getting help] to prevent adverse outcomes,” she said.
Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said Guard members must remain vigilant and ready to personally engage fellow Soldiers and Airmen if needed.
“We are emphasizing mental health and resiliency for our units as we strive to prevent suicides,” said Lengyel. “Any Soldier or Airman who takes his or her own life is one too many.”