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Developing Strengths-Based Supports: Countering Suicidal Behaviors in Military Veterans

By Valerie L. Dripchak, PhD, LCSW

The news media have informed us about the staggering number of military veterans who are taking their own lives. In January 2015, The Los Angeles Times reported that the suicide rate is approximately 50% higher in military veterans than in people with similar demographics who never served in the military. An equally startling statistic: The suicide rate for recent veterans who never went to Afghanistan or Iraq was about 16% higher than those who did so, suggesting that the perils of war may not be a factor in all cases.

A June 2015 article in The Los Angeles Times noted that while the suicide rate generally is lower in females, female military veterans commit suicide at nearly six times the rate of other women; the rate is approaching that of male veterans. These statistics become more relevant, as soldiers, prior to the 9/11 attacks, had lower rates of suicide as compared with the general population.

Although suicide is a multidimensional phenomenon and lacks a single etiology, these complexities remain a key issue for social workers.

In order to examine this trend, it is essential to understand that military culture is unique in many ways. Military training follows a strict and regimented line of power and authority, which are considered necessary for a military force in combat. Military training encompasses more than maneuvers; it integrates the values of self-reliance, collectivism, and loyalty.

Jacob’s experiences reflect a typical response about military life. Jacob is currently in the Marines.

Military life is great, but it is not like being a part of any other group. We have our own system of authority, laws, and rules. Violate any of them and we face dishonor. Our training makes us more than Marines. We become warriors; and in order to become a warrior, you have to be tough. The unbreakable bonds that we form with each other are stronger in some ways than the bonds within our own families. The Marines provide me with more than food, shelter, and a paycheck. It gives me mental and physical strength, sense of belonging, and an identity with others who share these same values.

While the self-worth that Jacob earned from being trained as a warrior may be a protective factor for him, it undermines others from seeking help when it is needed. There is a stigma in the military about sharing suicidal thoughts, which leads to concealment. Yet, his or her most shared protective factor is to have someone (e.g., a member of the clergy or therapist) “who is willing to listen, keep it confidential, and not judge.” Some examples of these experiences include the following narratives.

Sarah enlisted in the Navy after graduating from high school.

I enlisted in the Navy because the recruiter told me that I would have the same opportunities for training and earnings as my male counterparts. As an African American woman who had lots of ambition, those words were very powerful for me. Everything went well for me for the first two years, and I rose to the rank of Petty Officer First Class. However, I soon became aware of a couple of my mates who were victims of military sexual trauma (MST). While we had classes on MST during our training, it was considered to be a difficult problem to talk about. We had the option of filing complaints, but there was the unspoken fear of reprisal. I hated that it was going on; but on some level, I also was grateful that it was not happening to me. Another sailor whom I knew had complained about being sexually harassed, and he committed suicide before his complaint was fully investigated. As a result of this incident, I became depressed, because it brought up memories of my own sexual assault eight years earlier. I thought that I had worked through it with the help of my family and my faith. However, this “new family” needed to keep secrets. Being a spiritual person, I ended up discussing my feelings with our chaplain. He helped me accept that each of us can try to make a difference, but change in this culture takes time. I began to take courses, and when my time was up in the Navy, I completed my education as a social worker. I now work with individuals (including military personnel) who were sexually abused. I am thankful to this day for my faith and people like Chaplain Bob who were able to hear my story. Now, I am paying it forward.

While Sarah’s story is more exceptional in its outcome, the ideas of spirituality and faith in a higher power have been strengths for many. However, there were other veterans who tried a couple of different ways to seek help before it made a difference.

Eric served six years in the Army.

When I joined the service at 19 years old, I thought I knew what I was getting into. Basic training helped me to prepare to become a soldier, although I never went into combat. When my best friend from basic training killed himself, I took a second look at myself. I realized that this could have been me. When I tried to talk about it with my family, they did not appreciate the bonds that I developed with these guys. They told me that anyone who joins the military needs to learn to face death, but I still felt guilty about being alive. Drinking “helped” me in the beginning, but alcohol started to cause its own problems. I began seeing a social worker who happened to be a veteran. He recommended a sober group with other veterans. I have been sober for four years now and no longer consider taking my own life. I don’t know if I would be able to say that, if I did not have these people around me to keep me going.

Sharing issues with family members scored low as a protective factor among these interviewees, because they often did not feel understood by their families. Moreover, some individuals did not have anyone with whom they could share their deepest feelings. This led to another protective factor of the adoption of a pet.

Brian was drafted into the Marines during the Vietnam War.

I have known a lot of my military buddies who killed themselves over the years, because they could not handle their memories of killing. I am 70 years old and have to admit that I did a lot of things in the service that I am not proud of and needed to move past. However, it is difficult for me to really open up to another person about my feelings and what I went through (and continue to go through), because it feels like I am betraying my military code. People outside the Marines just don’t understand what it is like to be in the military. So don’t think of me as strange, but I use my dog, Leo, as my confidant. He has been my lifeline. I give talks to other veterans, and Leo is with me. I constantly am surprised how many veterans feel as I do about our pets.

Social Workers’ Response
Although these narratives are only a representative sample, they characterize the more prevalent responses from soldiers and veterans who were interviewed regarding what shields them against suicide. These findings may provide social workers with some takeaway messages.

One point is that the social work profession needs to know about military culture. Our work is unique in that we value cultural influences as they may pertain to ethnicity, race, etc. Our person-in-environment view encourages us to complement military customs in a similar fashion. Secondly, it is our responsibility to educate family members and friends about military culture. Sarah, whose narrative is related above, began a weekly drop-in group in her social work practice for soldiers, veterans, friends, and family members to share experiences. While the topics vary widely, she said that these types of opportunities provide a place to learn from each other.

Lastly, it was evident from these individuals that the suicide epidemic in the military population must be halted. While there are no simple answers, this should not stop our quest to learn more about it, advocate for needed services (e.g., service pets, professional workshops, and drop-in groups), and find new answers to provide alternative solutions. It is likely that more veterans will be seeking services from our profession in the future, and we must prepare ourselves to understand and acknowledge protective factors against suicide. While suicide may remain a challenge to prevent, there must be increased attention paid to potential areas that will reduce the present numbers.

— Valerie L. Dripchak, PhD, LCSW, is a professor of social work at Southern CT State University in New Haven, CT. She works in private practice with veterans and other individuals and their families.