Last month the Defense Department released the Annual Report on Suicide in the Military for 2021, which showed a 15% decrease in suicides from 2020 to 2021. But that hasn’t meant the department can shift focus away from suicide prevention, the deputy secretary of defense said.
“There’s so much more work to do, and we will not be satisfied as long as there is a single suicide remaining in the force — and that includes the family members of the force,” Kathleen H. Hicks said during an online discussion Tuesday with Washington Post Live.
One example of work being done by the department involves creating the healthy climates necessary to address a range of problematic and harmful behaviors, including suicide. This will be accomplished, in part, with a new and dedicated primary prevention workforce focused on community-based prevention.
“We have worked across a bipartisan coalition in Congress to support the department having a prevention workforce that will ultimately be about 2,000 people,” Hicks said. “We have, right now as we speak, several hundred openings available.”
Interested professionals can apply for those positions by visiting www.usajobs.gov, Hicks said. The public health or social science professionals who sign on to be part of that workforce will be responsible for helping to provide military commanders with the tools needed to reduce a wide range of risk factors — such as substance misuse, toxic leadership or financial stress — and build up important protective factors — such as healthy coping mechanisms and cohesion — that will ultimately prevent harmful behaviors.
“[These are] all the factors that go into causing stress and harm behaviors, including … suicide,” Hicks said. “We are quite confident that’s a very science-based approach that we’re using. It’s the largest effort like … this that has ever existed at an unprecedented scale …. This prevention workforce will be a first-of-its-kind, and we’re going to do it right here in the United States military because that’s what we owe our people and their families.”
Also, part of the effort to continue to reduce suicides in the military, Hicks said, is the removal of any stigma associated with seeking mental health care.
“We have a number of initiatives underway now to make sure we remove that stigma, not just that it’s not … bad to seek help, if you will, for your behaviors, for your mental health, but really that it’s a sign of strength,” she said.
One example of a program designed to help reduce the stigma of seeking mental health assistance is the REACH program, which stands for “Resources Exist, Asking Can Help.” The program was initially piloted at six installations across the department and was shown to reduce a service member’s reluctance to seek assistance. The department continues to expand the program for military spouses and remote and overseas locations.
Finally, Hicks said the department continues to focus on “lethal means safety,” which includes the safe storage of firearms and other means for suicide, such as medications. In the military and across the country, she said, firearms are the most common method of suicide.
“We know, and it’s well documented, that if we can create a little time and space between that ideation, that idea of having concerns about … potentially committing suicide and those lethal means — obviously, firearms being foremost, but also medications — if we can create that time and space, create some safety, then that reduces the likelihood of suicide.”
As part of its focus on lethal means safety, the department continues implementation and evaluation of CALM, or Counseling on Access to Lethal Means education. CALM trains mental health professionals and others who work with at-risk individuals on ways to reduce access to safely store lethal means for suicide including firearms and medications.
If you, or someone you know, needs help, support is available 24/7. Service members and their families can call Military OneSource at 1-800-342-9647, or chat at militaryonesource.mil. Service members, veterans, and their loved ones can also call the Military Crisis Line/Veterans Crisis Line at 988, press 1 or at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat at veteranscrisisline.net or text to 838255.