Friday, July 13, 2012

Suicides and Priorities

TIME Magazine did a recent cover story on military suicides, choosing to focus on active duty suicides (when most of the press usually goes to veteran suicides). Active duty suicides are almost one a day and many of them are soldiers who've never seen combat. It's troubling.

I have no experience in combat or as a soldier so anything I say here is more speculation, hypothesizing and questioning. I hope those experienced soldiers who read this will be able to bring their informed opinions to my thoughts.

Obviously the question is why?

I don't know. I have a couple of questions. Could it have something to do with the changing cultural understanding of war? It seems like war, combat, killing was once something people did out of perceived necessity - it remained "bad," regrettable, and terrible. People knew the "evils" of war, so to speak, and what men did in battle stayed there.

Over time we, out of patriotic fervor (especially those who never go, serve, or sacrifice) made such combat service into something admirable. It wasn't the nastiness of war anymore, at least in the public realm, it was good and noble. Something that had to be difficult when the realities of combat are relatively unchanged. We had a whole generation of veterans whose experiences in war didn't line up with the descriptions of such by people who hadn't been there.

Is it more difficult to deal with the realities of combat when people treat soldiers like heroes for killing people? I don't know. Just a thought.

Of course that doesn't address, at all, those soldiers who kill themselves while never having seen a war zone. TIME profiled a doctor, stationed in Hawaii, who cited the difficulties meeting responsibilities to his family and to his comrades. Is there an issue with priorities? The military does a great job breeding brotherhood - bringing people together in such tight-knit ways that they become family. Does this familial bond end up trumping a soldiers spouse and kids? Is too much emphasis placed on the connection to fellow soldiers? I don't know.

I did think about potential comparisons to ministry - something with which I am familiar. Often, pastors were trained to give everything to their ministry assignment - the people in their pastoral care became such a priority that their spouse and kids suffered because of it. I use the past tense because things are improving; it's not a conquered problem, though.

Because of these pressures, you see a lot of depression, burnout, and relational problems in pastors. Thousands of pastors quit each month because of these or similar pressures. As a whole, ministry preparation did not include the proper understanding of priorities for family and ministry.

I don't know if this is analogous to the military or not. It sure seems like it from the outside. Are there better ways to train soldiers to maintain proper perspective - or are the requirements of the job too demanding to make this work?

Certainly there is more each of us can do to support combat troops as they return home, but the Pentagon isn't sitting on its hands either - 4% of the budget goes to mental health and most of the active duty suicides had counseling and other preventative services.

If trends continue, in a few years suicide will be a greater cause of military deaths than combat. We owe it to our our soldiers and ourselves to keep this from moving to the back burner.


Anonymous said...

Ryan, I haven't read the Time article (apparently I need to be a subscriber) but I'd be interested in knowing what the rate among active duty is compared to a civilian populace of similar demographics (18-35 males). Additionally, based on my limited experience dealing with troop suicides, I would say that military service has been a major factor. Rather the causes seemed to be existing mental illness and family issues (divorce/separation). What I think is a contributing factor is separation from family and support structure (both in deployments and in regular assignments - particularly overseas). This can be with young troops away from home for the first time or a cumulative toll that it takes on the more experienced.

Undoubtedly, combat affects some more than others. Don't know if it's a factor in suicides, but I think how the public perceives military is interesting. Generally, we're treated as heros or monsters - very rarely as normal guys/gals who just happen to do some odd things for work. Most of us have never been wounded or shot/killed anyone, and yet we're treated very different.

Just some thoughts. I don't have any answers either, but I can tell you suicide prevention and mental health treatment is something that's stressed from the generals in the Pentagon all the way to the sergeant mentoring his junior troops.


Ryan said...

Yeah, the article talked about the shift in numbers (for most of the time they've been keeping stats, the military suicide rate has been well below the general population - attributed to the mutual accountability of the military - in the past decade the numbers have shifted demonstrably, where the military rate is now outpacing the general population.

The article doesn't do much more than the speculating I've done. No one is quite sure why this is happening - which is partly why, despite its best efforts, the Pentagon can't gain traction in prevention.

I was just sort of trying to throw my two cents into the mix.

If the active duty suicides were mostly combat troops, I think this would be less shocking - people sort of assume not everyone can handle that kind of trauma, but the numbers were something like only a third of active duty suicides had even seen combat.

That's what's so quizzical to me. Soldiers who are working desk jobs and routine hospital duty in the states are killing themselves at alarming rates. That makes very little logical sense.

The biggest question the article drew was how often the military chalked these up to mental illness or marital strife - and how often the families seemed to attribute the strife to work issues.

The Pentagon seemed to be pretty candid in responding, so I don't think it was a gotcha kind of thing. I think everyone is just genuinely perplexed and looking for something to do differently.