Intervene sooner to stem rising tide of military suicide

“The military’s suicide prevention effort is failing, and we must find out why,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., at a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on the issue.

Each year, the Department of Defense spends millions of dollars combating military suicide. Despite these valiant efforts, we are still not winning this “silent war.” The major problem is that, while there is an array of effective support programs and resources, the burden is too often placed on the service member to ask for help. More than half of military members who could benefit from mental health or command assistance do not seek it on their own.

A new intervention approach is needed — one that must leverage existing technology and privacy protections and help detect evidence-based warning signs of troubling behavior, especially within the wire, long before it’s too late to support individuals’ course corrections.

One study found that more active-duty personnel and veterans who fought in the Global War on Terrorism (30,177) have died as a result of suicide than all of the service members (7,057) killed in post 9/11 war operations, a rate that even outpaces average Americans. And, according to the Department of Defense’s 2020 Annual Suicide report, suicide rates of active-duty military personnel rose more than 40% between 2015-2020.

Military suicides rose 20% during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Department of Veterans Affairs’ crisis line received more than 35,000 calls during the U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan.

“Suicide rates among our service members are still too high,” said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently in response to the crisis.

So, what’s not working? I would argue that it’s our current response model, which is anchored on training, increasing awareness, population-based outreach, and improving ease of access. But the underlying fact remains, we place the burden of seeking help on those who struggle. We have maintenance alert systems in our aircraft and ground vehicles that tell us when they need service or repair, ahead of a full-system breakdown. We should be monitoring our people in a similar way.

The government provides a litany of suicide prevention support services, including counseling and intervention focused programs. The Defense Department has an office solely dedicated to prevention. Congress spends hundreds of millions to fund DOD suicide prevention programs each year, and President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2023 budget for the VA includes close to $500 million to support prevention initiatives.

But we cannot keep throwing money at the same prevention models that have continually proven ineffective for the last decade. It’s time for a new strategy: We must own the responsibility of connecting service members with help before they need it. We must empower commanding officers with real-time insights into those who are struggling.

By intervening sooner, an officer, chaplain or mental health professional can change a negative trajectory. This early detection and mitigation will help not only those who may be headed down the dark path of suicide, but also those who are struggling from other negative outcomes.

There are often warning signs in all suicides — and the DOD should implement solutions to identify them and prevent untimely deaths of our military members. According to the DOD’s 2020 annual report on suicide, problems related to failed or failing relationships (42%), administrative or legal trouble (26%), drugs/alcohol use (15%), and excessive debt/bankruptcy (7%) were reported 90 days prior to death. This data — which is already being collected — can serve as the foundation for a new approach to help military decision makers intervene at the first signs of team member distress.

To be clear, just because a service member has excessive debt does not necessarily mean they will die by suicide. But it does mean that a commander should be engaging today, and sadly they may not if they are blind to this struggle. We must replace this reactionary approach with proactive leadership and a focus on individual resilience, unit readiness and organizational capability.

Coupled with existing data and processes, the advancements in today’s technology can further protect our military members from harm. In the civilian space, companies that deal with sensitive information are increasingly incorporating several measures into their risk management programs to improve threats discovery of both cyber and insider risk. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency created a guide to help companies identify unusual online behavior with technology that “engages individual insiders who are potentially on the path to a hostile, negligent, or damaging act,” a part of a successful insider threat mitigation program.

These same safeguards can also be deployed in a risk model to help detect “triggers” of suicidal or destructive behavior in accordance with all privacy laws and safeguards against discrimination or bias. This can not only save the life of someone in danger but also prevents an individual from potentially harming others.

In addition to the military’s existing approaches to detect suicide warning signs, mental health disorders and substance abuse as part of an annual Periodic Health Assessment, a continuous employee visibility and alert system can be one more tool in the commanders’ toolbox.

The brave men and women of our armed forces voluntarily risk their own safety and sometimes sacrifice their lives in defense of our country. They should be assured that we will take care of each and every one of them, whether they are forward deployed or at home. Preventing military suicide is a complicated task; in large part because for many, their challenges are lifelong.

Collectively, we all have a responsibility to do our part as their new “band of brothers” to help service members and their families navigate a new and unfamiliar battlefield. By leveraging existing data and technology, coupled with our great treatment and prevention programs, we can meet them at the point of struggle more quickly, which in turn can create better outcomes.

Michael Hudson, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, is the vice president of Government Solutions at ClearForce, a risk management organization. He is a 30-year Marine Corps veteran, where he commanded a helicopter squadron, a Marine Expeditionary Unit, and, in his last active-duty billet, served as the Marine Corps’ Sexual Assault Prevention and Response lead.

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