Oklahoma National Guard puts emphasis on suicide prevention as numbers climb
BY JERRY WOFFORD World Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2013
1/20/13 at 8:00 AM
Oklahoma National Guard Capt. Sharon Rice said she gets a call about a soldier in mental distress about two or three times a month.
As the guard's suicide prevention program manager, Rice knows that a soldier asking for help is an important step in breaking down stigmas that might prevent soldiers from seeking assistance.
"We see asking for help as a sign of strength," Rice said. "Just as if I had a physical illness, it would be very foolish of me to not go to the doctor and have that addressed. It's the same thing with mental health."
More military members took their own lives than were killed in combat last year, according to reports from The Associated Press. There were a record 349 suicides reported by the Pentagon, up from 301 in 2011 and the highest since detailed statistics began in 2001.
There were 295 Americans who died in Afghanistan last year, according to an Associated Press count of military deaths.
Suicide has been called an epidemic by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and suicide prevention has become a focus for officials across the military.
Oklahoma National Guard leaders said they recognize the struggles faced by soldiers fighting foreign wars and reintegrating into society once they return, and they are expanding resources to support their guardsmen.
Among the Oklahoma National Guard members, 16 soldiers have taken their own lives and 19 have died in combat since 2001, according to the guard. Nine of those suicides occurred in the last two years.
Of the combat deaths since 2001, 14 were in the last deployment of the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. More than 3,000 soldiers spent nine months in Kuwait and Afghanistan.
The guard has put more efforts into the suicide prevention program, which has existed for years and is focused on all soldiers. Rice said that program has expanded in the last year to be more intensive.
Another program focuses specifically on the leaders and trains them on what to watch that may indicate a soldier is struggling.
A third approach is a resilience program that aims to give the soldiers better coping and communication skills.
"They can be taught so that's in place before any of these life crises hit," Rice said. "They have some internal personal skills to fall back on to help them deal with those."
The directive for change came from the highest levels of the Oklahoma National Guard. Maj. Gen. Myles Deering, adjutant general for Oklahoma, held a conference last fall with his senior leaders and state mental health professionals and made it clear that suicide prevention was a top priority.
Staff Sgt. Amy Gordon, assistant resilience program coordinator, said hearing that from the top levels helps reinforce the seriousness of the topic.
"As an E-6, I was happy to hear this from him," Gordon said. "They were all there and all heard that said from his mouth."
Other guard leaders have spoken at length to soldiers about the problems they faced when they returned, how those problems festered and how they got help.
One of those leaders was Maj. Colby Wyatt, who spoke to about 400 soldiers at a Yellow Ribbon Event in June focused on helping soldiers reintegrate after their deployment last year.
Wyatt said he had trouble sleeping and controlling his anger, and he drank too much. He said everything in his life was affected by that until he was able to recognize the changes and seek help.
Rice said communication helps soldiers realize they're not alone.
"At first it seemed like every soldier thought, 'I'm the only one who's having these problems,' " Rice said. "And it's like, 'No. No, you're not.'
"I think it's evolved now where the ones who are having difficulties now are very aware that they are not alone in having these difficulties."
According to the guard, most of the nine Oklahoma National Guard soldiers who recently committed suicide had been drinking alcohol shortly before they died. Further investigations revealed that most had been experiencing relationship troubles before they committed suicide.
Randy May, who coordinates behavioral health programs for the guard, said a soldier's issues may not be seen immediately after they return. The drinks a soldier has to celebrate with friends when they get back could be hiding a growing problem.
"When people come back, I think it's too quick to really tell what's going on," May said. "Nothing is normal yet. You really can't predict who's going to fare well and who doesn't."
But the stress of military life goes beyond deployment. Five of the nine soldiers who committed suicide in the last two years had never deployed.
That shows the need for the widespread focus on mental health and suicide prevention that guard officials said they are still working to expand.
"If one of your own is hurting, we will rally around and flock in to assist and help solve the problem," Rice said. "That emphasis on suicide prevention, teaching people life skills and reducing that stigma, that's just been a night-and-day change."
How to get help
In a crisis or emergency: Call 911
Confidential help for veterans and their families is available by calling the Veterans Crisis Line (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), then press one.
Tulsa Helpline: 211
Mental Health Association in Tulsa: 918-585-1213
Traci Cook, behavioral health case manager with the Oklahoma Army National Guard: 405-228-5308
Tulsa Vet Center: 918-628-2760, 14002 E. 21st St., Suite 200
Original Print Headline: Guard puts emphasis on suicide prevention
Jerry Wofford 918-581-8310