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Suicides, mental illnesses challenge military readiness

Advocates call for policy changes after rash of Navy suicides

The nuclear aircraft carrier USS George Washington sits pier side at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia on Sept. 30, 2016 Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber, file

Suicides, mental illnesses challenge military readiness

On April 28, Capt. Brent Gaut, commanding officer of the USS George Washington stationed in Norfolk, Va., told his 260 sailors to prepare to move off the ship into barracks. The order came after three service members committed suicide all in the same week. Overall, 10 sailors on the ship, which was docked for long-term repairs, took their own lives in as many months.

The string of deaths has cast a harsh glare on living conditions and work culture not only on the ship but also across all military branches. Researchers and politicians are scrutinizing military policies that at face value encourage mental health treatment but might actually be preventing soldiers from accessing it.

Last month, the Defense Suicide Prevention Office released preliminary numbers showing active duty military suicides dropped slightly by 58 in 2021 compared with the year before, the first decline in six years. This mirrors a decline in the national suicide rate since 2019, but the slow reduction indicates the problem has not subsided. A Brown University study from last year found that while veterans still account for the majority of military suicides (an estimated 22,261 of 30,177 since 9/11), the rates among active service members have increased, especially among 18- to 34-year-olds. Additionally, the number of sailors deserting the Navy doubled in 2021 compared with 2020, NBC News reported this week.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and two other U.S. lawmakers wrote in a letter to the secretary of the Army that twice as many soldiers in Alaska committed suicide in 2021 compared with 2020. Sullivan said that during his days as a Marine reservist, a man under his command took his own life. The memory of the tragedy has spurred him to find what the military can do to help service members sooner.

Sullivan has also said he’s working on a bill to stop military penalties for mental health treatment. The Defense Department disqualifies recruits who have previously been treated for depression, anxiety, or other mental disorders. During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in April, Sullivan referenced a 2017 incident in which an Army lieutenant colonel’s daughter was denied acceptance because she met with a mental health counselor as a teenager when she struggled with her father’s deployments. She later received a waver, but Sullivan said policies need to catch up with medical advances.

M. David Rudd, a veteran and professor at the University of Memphis, said military recruits often hide mental health struggles when they sign up. Rudd, who also directs the new Rudd Institute for Veteran and Military Suicide Prevention, described a cycle in which underlying mental health issues become worse under the pressures of military service, especially during deployment, but then the soldier avoids reaching out for help due to fear of discharge.

“The defining elements of warrior culture are self-sacrifice, selfless service, individual courage, bravery. These foundational elements are part of why our military is the highest performing military in the world,” Rudd said. “But they don’t leave a lot of room for difficulty and the emotional and psychological challenges of service.”

Rudd noted that one of the sailors on the USS George Washington was seeking mental health treatment but was placed on a six-month waitlist. When Rudd served as a clinical psychologist in the Army’s 2nd Armored Division in the Gulf War, he recalled getting treated right away at the troop clinic for medical injuries. But a mental health complaint is classified as a specialty, and officials send troops dealing with such problems to the same centers where veterans and family members wait their turn. Rudd says active service members need more timely assessment and treatment.

In studying mental health challenges in the military, Ohio State College of Medicine clinical psychologist Craig Bryan said trial respondents frequently told him about internal policies designed to protect and strengthen leaders and the institution rather than its members.

“We’ve traditionally approached suicide from a mental illness perspective, which is also the pervasive model within society,” Bryan told me. “But I’m beginning to see that it might be something about the organization itself and its policies that create stressful points and can contribute to suicides.”

For example, a service member’s mental health treatment could trigger a loss of privileges or of security clearances. Commanding officers are immediately informed, and both Rudd and Bryan said this can damage relationships with peers who have to cover for each other because of a treatment absence. Rudd said this system fails in its overall goal of preserving a strong, healthy military force.

Bryan believes the situation calls for a more thorough review. The military branches rely on legislation to change suicide prevention procedure, but the current laws enforce a one-size-fits-all approach that Bryan said is not working: “We tell people to go get help. But if you do, there’s a policy that might punish you for it.”

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a House Appropriations Committee subpanel that the Pentagon is aware of widespread problems with military housing. He is waiting on two investigations to find out what happened on the USS George Washington. Some sailors told Military.com that conditions on board were unbearable: “incessant, overbearing construction sounds, punctuated by power, ventilation and hot water outages and long commutes.”

Pursuant to the defense policy bill Congress passed last year, Austin ordered the creation of the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee. In March, he established the group and told it to begin visiting nine installations, three of which are in Alaska. The committee is expected to provide an initial report to Austin by the end of December and a comprehensive review with recommendations to Congress in February.

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


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