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NEWS | Sept. 25, 2014

Army Guard observes Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month

By Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Darron Salzer National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. – September is observed as Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month across the Department of Defense, with many of the services – including the National Guard – conducting events to foster a dialogue about mental health issues.

At Arlington Hall Station, the headquarters of the Army National Guard and the National Guard Bureau, the acting director of the Army National Guard, Army Maj. Gen. Judd H. Lyons, spoke earlier this month about his responsibilities to ensure no Soldier chooses to commit suicide.

“As the acting director I have a responsibility to ensure that we are doing everything we can to reach out to Soldiers that are struggling with suicide within our ranks,” Lyons said. “September … provides us all the opportunity to reassess what we are doing personally for ourselves, our friends, our families, and our colleagues.

“It’s hard to believe that last year we lost about a company-worth of Soldiers to suicide – too many Soldiers are taking their lives, or attempting to do so.”

Lyons said it distressed him to think about the number of Soldiers lost to suicide, and how that has a ripple affect across the organization in terms or readiness and the impact on the lives of those left behind.

To address mental health issues and build a more resilient force, Lyons said the Guard has hired additional behavioral healthcare staff at the state and top levels, promoted resilience training, and worked with professionals – both government and academic – to help understand the root causes of suicidal and high-risk behaviors.

“As long as just even one [individual] is struggling, our responsibility will continue,” he said.

Leaders such as Lyons, from across the Guard, agree that Service members need to continue to understand that asking for help is not a sign of weakness.

“There should be no stigma or shame associated with seeking help,” he said. “As an organization it is our responsibility to create the environment where someone who is [needing help] feels comfortable talking to someone. It is an obligation to each other.”

For those coping with the loss of a family member, battle buddy or colleague, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, TAPS, is a great resource.

“We care for about 4,000 family members, battle buddies and friends who have lost a loved one to suicide in the military,” said Rebecca Morrison, the suicide survivor communications liaison for TAPS.

Suicide prevention is very important, Morrison noted, because when a Soldier dies, their loved ones are three to four times more likely to commit suicide as well.

“At TAPS we care for the survivors in a way that is preventing suicide as well,” she said.

TAPS provides free 24/7 care to families of a fallen Service member, regardless of the relationship individuals had with their loved one, and regardless of how the loved one died.

“There really is not another program out there that takes care of that specific population,” Morrison said. “We send these survivors care packages with materials to help survivors cope with suicide, as well as connect them to a case manager and a peer mentor to help them along their journey to overcome suicide.”

Morrison knows from firsthand experience the benefits of the TAPS program.

“I lost my husband two and a half years ago to suicide,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. I was young and I had to leave home, my job, everything. This program fundamentally brings people back from the brink of committing suicide themselves and to a place where they can live again.”

Morrison was able to share her story during a panel discussion recently, along with Jesus Carrion Rodriguez and Doug Windley here at AHS.

Rodriguez, a facility operations specialist for Arlington Hall Station, was home from deployment on emergency leave when he almost took his life.

“No matter how hard your life is, no matter how many problems you have in your life, you’ve got to speak up and tell people around you what your problems are,” he said.

He said he was keeping all his emotions bottled up, trying to be strong for his family, but all he was doing was hurting himself, Rodriguez added.

“But I am alive today because I spoke up and got the help that I needed,” he said.

Windley, the TAPS program manager for military installations, said when individuals are receptive to getting help, that great healing can begin to take place.

“I’ve never really seen anybody wearing a cape – it doesn’t exist,” he said. “We don’t always have the answers … but the fact that someone [struggling] will seek you out or knock on your door, that is their last cry for help where they are looking for you to intervene in their life and help them get through the darkness.”

Windley said not everyone is an expert in helping others deal with thoughts of suicide, but recognizing the signs and caring enough to get someone to the help and resources out there is often all that’s needed.

As a Soldier who has also personally struggled, Army Maj. Agata Tyson, the Army National Guard suicide prevention program manager, said the resources are there for Soldiers to become stronger, and realize a sense of purpose, and become an overall better leader, spouse, son or daughter.

“This is important to me because I am a Soldier who has personally struggled, and people were there to help me – I know what that’s like,” Tyson said.

Tyson encourages everyone to look for the warning signs of someone who might be dealing with thoughts of suicide, and then to put aside personal fears and reach out to that individual.

“The most important thing is to get help,” she said. “If ... you don’t feel like you can go on or that anyone can help you, that’s the time to get help because that’s when you have run out of your own resources – it doesn’t mean that you’ve reached the end of all of the resources available to you.”

Tyson said the goal is to diminish the taboos surrounding seeking help or talking about suicide so individuals thinking about committing suicide feel that it’s okay to reach out.

“This is a readiness issue,” she said. “This is literally life or death. When a Soldier dies … it’s the impact on the unit, the impact on the family, and the impact on the community – it has a huge ripple effect.”