Home : News
NEWS | Sept. 21, 2012

Civilians can help prevent military suicides, official says

By Lisa Daniel American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON - Defense Department civilians need to understand and recognize the warning signs for suicide just as their military counterparts are being trained to do, the acting director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office said Friday.

"We want to make sure our civilians are as comfortable talking to our military members as their military leaders are," Jacqueline Garrick, a licensed clinical social worker and former Army captain, said during an educational session about suicide prevention at the Pentagon conference center.

Garrick made the presentation Thursday and Friday as part of increased outreach during September's National Suicide Prevention Awareness and Awareness Month. She and others spoke to small groups of mostly mental health professionals about how to manage crisis and increase resilience.

"Suicide affects us as a nation," Garrick said, although there are not comparable numbers to compare the suicide rate in the military with that in the civilian sector.

The Centers for Disease Control just released its 2010 suicide figures, while the DOD is about to release its 2012 statistics, she said. Also, suicide often is not given as the cause of death, but rather asphyxiation or heart attack, when someone has hanged themselves of taken a drug overdose, she said.

But Garrick said the information is clear enough to know that suicides have been trending up in both the military and civilian sectors for several years.

To combat military suicides, Garrick said, you also have to look to civilians who not only work alongside and manage service members, but "civilians also are our family members."

Managers need to be attuned to those on their staff who may be suicidal, Garrick said. Information gathered by the department shows that young, white men make up the largest block of military suicides, usually committed at home with their own firearm, she said.

Half had never deployed and many joined the military with personal problems that can mount into emotional instability.
Managers have to understand that employees also are dealing with stress from their personal lives -- problems with spouses, kids, finances or legal trouble.

"We know all of this comes into the workplace constantly," she said. "That's just life. It flows all over the place."
The first step for managers is to be open to talking when an employee approaches with a problem, Garrick said.

She offered these tips for effective communication with employees:

  • If you can't stop what you're doing, make it clear that you want to talk to them and soon. If it's not an emergency, ask if they can come back in 20 minutes
  • Go to a private place to talk
  • Ensure that your tone and body language show concern and a mentoring stance
  • Sound sympathetic and empathetic without being condescending
  • Be a listener. Don't talk more than the person in crisis
  • Don't insert your own issues into the conversation
  • Don't make judgments or assumptions
  • Use phrases like, "Tell me more about that," and "How can I help?
  • Don't feel like you have to have all the answers.

"They really just need to know that you're listening and you will try to help," Garrick said. "You don't need to solve it all in 15 minutes."

People should listen for emotional red flags such as ‘I just can't take it anymore,' she said.

If you think someone may be contemplating suicide, Garrick said, ask them, "Are you considering hurting yourself?" and "Do you have the means to do it?"

The three main places for help with suicide prevention are:

  • The Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, then press the No. 1
  • Military Family Life counselors
  • Military chaplains

It is important for family members also to reach out to these resources if they think their service member may be suicidal, Garrick said. All conversations are confidential and seeking medical treatment rarely affects a service member's career or security clearances, she said.

"Getting help early is really what will help your career," she said.