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NEWS | Sept. 26, 2012

Dempsey: Leadership, trust essential to battling suicide

By Claudette Roulo American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON - Military leaders have changed the way they approach suicide prevention, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said during a recent interview with American Forces Press Service.

Driven by awareness of the cumulative effects of 10 years of war, leaders are working to build resilience in the force from the moment a service member enters the military, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said.

"This is not something we can switch on and off like a light switch," Dempsey said. "These programs have to be enduring, they have to be pervasive and we have to have leaders committed to it."

It's important for people who feel overstressed to realize that it's OK to feel that way, he said. But it's also important for them to "understand the number of programs that are ... available to help young men and women make their way through the different stresses in their lives."

Ultimately, he said, the chain of command has to be as attuned as possible to troops' needs and commit to helping service members deal with the stresses in their lives.

Suicide prevention is a significant challenge, the chairman said, and solving the challenge will require awareness, commitment and understanding from leaders, service members and veterans.

Trust is the foundation upon which the military profession is built, Dempsey said, and developing and maintaining that trust is crucial to making progress against the military's suicide problem.

This demands time and dedication from leaders, he said, and might mean simply being present in the barracks at certain times of the day or night, stopping by the motor pool to talk with a young mechanic or whatever else it takes to be visible and supportive.

"If we get to the point - and we're trying - where young men and women trust each other enough that if they feel these impulses, that they will approach a battle buddy or wingman or shipmate - whatever we happen to call them - with their fears, their anxieties, their stresses, and that the battle buddy cares enough about them to trust the chain of command to deal with them, then I think we'll make a difference," Dempsey said.

In its search for ways to get out in front of the military's suicide problem, the DOD also is examining the roles science and medicine play in the issue, he said, looking at everything from enzymes to chemical imbalances.

"I would describe this as an effort to literally approach this issue in all of its complexity," the chairman said. "I think maybe the most important thing that we've identified over the last ten years certainly is just how complex this issue is."

The recognition of the problem's complexity is what allows the military to attack it from multiple angles, he said, "from the resiliency aspects of it to the team building aspects of it to the leadership aspects to the medical aspects of it, and to keep learning as we go. That's the important thing; we have to keep learning about this."

The suicide prevention effort "is all about balance, it's all about commitment, it's all about trust and it's all about leaders taking ownership of this - from the most senior leaders in the uniformed force to the most junior," Dempsey said.

"But we've got to keep at this because it's not just a military problem; it's actually a societal problem," he added. "I think we have made significant progress in addressing the medical aspects of suicide and suicide prevention depression, post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury - we're partnered not only with military medicine but into the civilian sector as well with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Veterans Affairs hospital system."

Dempsey said increased cooperation between the Department of Veteran's Affairs and the Department of Defense "is beginning to make a difference in our ability to manage these issues."

The chairman noted that DOD is also partnering with the National Football League, which has had similar issues with concussions and their long-term effects. That partnership, signed earlier this month, is intended to raise awareness of traumatic brain injury and to further research into its causes, he said.

"I've never seen such a widely cast net to try to build a network of folks who can bring a particular perspective to the problem," Dempsey said, "and I think it's beginning to reap some benefits -- not only for the military, by the way, but also for those with whom we partner in the civilian sector."

Striking the right balance between various approaches is important, he said.

"I will say there's the medical aspect of it - you know, building resilience, then preventive measures [and] there's medication," Dempsey said.

"But ... we're always concerned about the use of medication to make sure that it doesn't mask some things and that we don't make people so dependent on medication that we begin to limit their effectiveness."

Trying to identify in advance people who might have a propensity to contemplate taking their own life "is really the most difficult part of all of this," he said.

As part of the department's predictive efforts, service members should become familiar with the tenets of the Total Force Fitness initiative, the chairman said.

The central pillar of the department's holistic approach to suicide prevention, the Total Force Fitness initiative is designed to integrate and harmonize the resilience programs of each of the services, Dempsey said.

"Again, it's about building resilience as a core function of a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine or Coast Guardsman," he said. "Our culture is one that tends to reward, but also promote, our strength - 'Army Strong,' in my particular service - but each service has some similar motto that describes the health of the force as rock-solid."

But, the chairman said, service members should know that the military is strong in the aggregate. If people feel overwhelmed, "they have to know that the institution and its leaders are committed to bringing them back to the position of resilience and strength so that they can contribute to the greater good of the institution at large."

Troubled service members shouldn't feel stigmatized and be reluctant to seek professional help, he said.

"Just as we would if someone couldn't do enough pushups or couldn't run fast enough, we've got hundreds of people to help each other through that. We also have hundreds of people willing to help people through the moments of depression in their lives," Dempsey said. "But we have to know about it in order to help them."