Suicide and Mental Health in the Military

November 11, 2012

As we celebrate Veterans Day, I thank the men and women who are serving or have served in the armed forces.  My own father was a World War II pilot and I am proud that my father served his country.  I believe it is important that service men and women are recognized and honored for serving their country. I also believe that addressing mental health issues in a proactive, positive way can save lives.

When the pentagon announced in June 2012 that the suicide rate among the nation’s active-duty military personnel has spiked this year, eclipsing the number of troops dying in battle and on pace to set a record annual high since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan more than a decade ago, I was startled.

Although suicide is a sensitive and difficult issue for many people, as a mental health advocate, I wish to help educate others on mental health issues as well as lessen the stigma that can prevent individuals from seeking the help they need.  As a friend to military families, I wish to help others understand some of the sacrifices made and the difficulties faced when serving in the military.  Yes, everyone has difficulties but our service men and women and their families face challenges that are unique to them.

To help me better understand mental health issues in the military and why the suicide rate among military personnel has spiked, I recently asked two active-duty friends to share their perspectives with me. Here is what I learned.

Viewpoint from an active-duty Green Beret with over 17 years of experience:  Although he has heard of suicides and suicide attempts on a regular basis, he has personally known of only two service members who took their own lives.  Although the special forces are not immune to suicide, there seems to be a lower incidence than in the overall military.  He believes the training and psychological evaluations the special forces receive seem to help the special forces cope better and recognize when they may need help.  He also says that reaching out for help is encouraged in the special forces.  He believes the majority of suicides and suicide attempts are primarily related to issues the service member is facing outside of their work environment.  Frequent and some times long deployments seem to cause much more stress on the service member.  Having no-control over their work demands is expected but when things go wrong back home or with loved ones the inability to address things back home when you are gone causes much stress. 

He said, “Your mind often plays out things that are happening back home or things that might be happening at home.”  It is a challenge when ever you have to be away from home but when you are deployed 9 months or more at a time, it is usually more challenging.  It seems that adjusting to being home can be more difficult than doing your job far away.  In his own situation, he finds being home is often harder for him than doing the special forces job he is trained to do.

He does think that some service members may feel that seeking help is a sign of weakness but stresses that help is available.  Chaplains are a great resource for those struggling.  Every unit is assigned a chaplain and they can coordinate resources for individuals that need professional help.  It is much easier to seek direct help with the increase in suicide awareness and prevention.  Help can be sought without having to go through the higher ranks, when embarrassment or fear may be obstacles that prevent one from seeking help.

He personally has been able to prevent a suicide by paying attention to the change in the individual’s behaviors.  Because the Green Beret reached out to the individual, who was contemplating suicide, and took the situation seriously, the individual was able to get the help he needed.

Viewpoint of a Senior Military Leader with over 30 years of service including 15 combat deployments:   He believes the increase in suicides in the general military population are as a result of being at war for over 10 years and the stress of seeing teammates die and the fear associated with the threat of dying or being wounded as well as the traditional issues, such as financial, relationships or job issues. 

Although, he has not known anyone that has taken their life over the 30 years he has been in the military. He has seen two attempts.  In his words, “Both were cries for help.  For the most part up until 2002, the military had a suicide rate similar to the general public.  The immediate threats in combat and the stress it puts on the family and military member has caused an increase amount of stress, which in turn increases the risk and threat of suicide.”

The military leader also talked about the importance of training, particularly in the Special Operations Community.  He said, “If a person is pushed to their limits in training and development, they will see training as more difficult than combat.  If they apply a set of common risk management tools, it can reduce risk and in turn reduce the stress.  “It is all about perspective.  If I know I am going to get punched in the gut…I can tighten my core and brace for the strike.”  Having no idea when or where the dread and despair will strike is what eats you up.”

The military leader believes each of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are treasures.  People are the military’s business and the military has taken great steps to de-stigmatize the concept of reaching out for help and seeking mental health preventative care.  The military medical system can not limit or deny access to mental health care and support, in fact, they have counselors and psychologists on station and assigned to the highest stressed units.  He has personally had a psychologist as a counselor for the past 12 years.  He reached out to the chaplain and the mental health office, after losing 4 members of his team. 

In his opinion, an obstacle to the service men and women seeking help, is that many hide the condition or avoid the issue until it becomes so crushing it become desperate.  He believes, the best tool to preventing this obstacle, is an active leader and an interpersonal relationship between leadership and the members of the team.  “We need to ask for help and be willing to talk”, he says.

He too has prevented a suicide.  He helped do so by recognizing and reducing the stress that he had control of, by being present and open to the person and just being there to talk and when ready, transitioning from personal interaction to professional help.  It took a leader to make a difference.

In the words of the military leader, “our military are the finest in the world and we are not all under so much stress that we will all become Johnny Rambos…we have a sense of brotherhood and need to be near and with those who have had similar experiences.  This is why the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and American Legion are so important to our folks.  There is a zero threshold for suicide, every one of my brothers and sisters are precious both personally and to the mission and service of the military.”  He sees it as such a tragedy when a member of the armed forces decides to give up and uses a permanent solution to deal with a temporary problem.

“It is important that we stress that this is about preparation and perspective.  When you raise your hand and swear an oath, you place your Life, liberty and prosperity on the line.  There is a point where you have to accept this job is dangerous and that you may die, if you live with the acceptance that when the Good Lord reaches out to you…You take his hand without question or wondering of what if…those who are not prepared or have not dealt with that contemplation often have the toughest time dealing with this.”          


There are so many aspects when discussing suicide and mental health in the military.  I hope this information provides a perspective that can help us better understand and prevent suicide, whether by a service member or an individual in the general population.  If you have concern for a loved one, do not ignore your concerns.  Instead you may want to ask the following questions:

  • Are you currently having any thoughts of hurting yourself?
  • Do you currently have any desire to kill yourself?
  • Do you currently have any specific plan to kill yourself?

Positive answers to any of these questions should not be ignored.  Suicide is preventable.



Suicides Outpacing War Deaths for Troops

Suicide in the Military

Suicide Prevention in the Military

Courage to Care: Suicide Facts (For Families)

U.S. officials launch new strategy to prevent suicide

Military Mental Health: An Outsider Takes a Peek Inside