Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta today described a four-part strategy against what he termed “perhaps the most frustrating challenge I’ve come across” as head of the nation’s military forces: service member and veteran suicide.
The secretary said his long-term goal is for the Defense Department to be a game-changing innovator in the field of suicide prevention.
“Just as we helped foster the jet age, the space race and the Internet, I want us to break new ground in understanding the human mind and human emotion,” he said.
The secretary said key efforts involve leadership, improving quality of and access to behavioral health care, elevating mental fitness and increasing research in suicide prevention.
Speaking on the concluding day of the DOD and Department of Veterans Affairs Annual Suicide Prevention Conference here, Panetta told the audience of mental health, military, government and private sector professionals there are clearly no easy answers, and “that is no damn reason for not finding the answers to the problem of suicide.”
“We can do more. We must do more. And together, we will do more to prevent suicides,” the secretary vowed.
The military and veteran communities will face the threat of suicide long after combat in Afghanistan ends, he noted.
“More than half of those who have committed suicide in the military have no history of deployment,” the secretary pointed out. ”So we’re dealing with broader societal issues. Substance abuse, financial distress and relationship problems — the risk factors for suicide — also reflect problems … that will endure beyond war.”
An effective suicide prevention strategy requires vigilance, Panetta said. He called on leaders, particularly the noncommissioned officers and junior officers who lead troops day-to-day, to be sensitive, aware and open to signs of stress in the ranks.
“And they need to be aggressive … in encouraging those under them to seek help if needed,” the secretary emphasized. “They also must set an example by seeking help themselves if necessary.”
Junior officers and NCOs must foster group cohesion and togetherness, he said, adding such bonds are fundamental to the military culture and can do much to improve mental health.
“My wife was a nurse [who] worked on mental health care issues,” Panetta said. “She has said to me time and time again, ‘This is a human issue, a human problem. You’ve to look in people’s eyes. You’ve got to be sensitive to their emotions. You’ve got to be sensitive to the challenges that they’re facing. You’ve got to be aware.’”
The more leaders keep their eyes open, “the more we can see those problems coming, the more we can do to try to help people in need,” he said.
The second pillar of the strategy is improving behavioral health care and making it more available, the secretary said.
There are more than 9,000 psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, mental health nurses and counselors working in military hospitals and clinics, he noted.
“That number has increased more than 35 percent over the last three years. Behavioral health experts are now being embedded into line units, and the department has worked to place mental health providers in primary care clinics … to facilitate access,” he said.
Due to geographic circumstances, he acknowledged, National Guard and reserve members, family members and some active-duty troops may still face difficulties in accessing needed care. However, officials said, online and telephone-accessed mental health consultation and information services also are helping to assist service members and families in need.
“I want to make sure that all service members and their family members have the quality mental and behavioral health care that they need, the kind of care that must be delivered by the best health care professionals in the world,” Panetta said.
Thanks to the efforts of many in the audience, he added, the military services are improving in their ability to identify and treat mental health care conditions.
“And we are working to better equip our system to deal with the unique challenges that these conditions can present,” Panetta added.
One example of building better care stems from reports of problems with the post-traumatic stress screening process within the military disability evaluation system, he said, noting he was very concerned at the reports and has directed a review of such screening across the services.
“We have got to do everything we can to make sure that the system itself is working to help soldiers, not to hide this issue,” Panetta said. It’s necessary “to face facts and deal with the problems upfront,” he added, “and to make sure that we provide the right diagnosis and that we follow up on that diagnosis.”
The third strategic element is to elevate mental fitness, he said. Panetta credited Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman, with leading all of the services to approach mental fitness with the same level of importance DOD has always placed on physical fitness.
Advancing mental fitness involves training and equipping service members with coping skills so they can mitigate or bounce back from stress, he said.
Separately, he said, a whole-of-government effort led by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama is working to combat veteran unemployment and boost military spouse hiring. Those initiatives are “helping to reduce the financial stress faced by military families and veterans,” the secretary said.
The fourth part of DOD’s suicide prevention strategy involves improving understanding of suicide and related mental health issues through improved scientific research, he said.
Better research requires partnership across government and with the private sector, Panetta added.
As a step toward building that understanding, he said, DOD and the Department of Veterans Affairs are building a data repository that will help mental health professionals better analyze suicides and suicide attempts, and spot trends.
In another initiative, DOD and the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund recently announced a plan to build state-of-the-art treatment centers for brain injuries and psychological disorders at nine of the largest military installations in the country, Panetta said.
“I am delighted that we were able to break ground on the first two of these centers, at Fort Belvoir [Va.,] and Camp Lejeune [N.C.],” Panetta added. The centers, he said, “will complement the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, [Md.], and provide cutting-edge evaluations, treatment planning, research and education for service members and for their families.”
Panetta emphasized effort in all four areas must push forward aggressively.
“All of us, and frankly for that matter all Americans, have to always support and care for those who have stepped forward to defend our country in uniform,” he said. “We are a family, and by God we have to take care of our family members.”
In a reference to his own heritage, Panetta added, “That’s not just Italian, that’s American. We owe it to those who protect us to do all we can to protect them.”
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
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