Realizing the complexity of the issue, one local organization has taken a multifaceted approach to preventing suicide in its ranks. And, if numbers are any indication, the combination of programs seems to be having a positive effect on soldiers in both Kentucky and Southern Indiana.
The Kentucky Army National Guard has the third lowest suicide rate for all National Guard forces in the nation. While they can’t be sure if the exact reasons for this accomplishment, effective leadership, resiliency training and a change in military culture may have played some role.
“To be honest, I’m not sure why we’ve been so successful. I’m just glad we have been,” said 1st Lt. Christopher Winburn, the casualty affairs coordinator with the Kentucky Army National Guard. “The problem with suicide is that it’s such a complex issue. There are a million factors that go in to it. And you have to look at every little circumstance the individual is going through, and not just in the military side but in their civilian lives and with their families.”
A major component of Kentucky’s prevention is breaking the stigma associated with mental health issues. In the past, those who admitted to suicidal thoughts may have been barred from promotion or had negative repercussions in the workplace. Now, the National Guard instructs leaders on how to create an open environment where soldiers feel comfortable discussing their thoughts and asking for help.
“One of the things that we talk about in our classes is that coming forward and saying you’re having thoughts of suicide isn’t a weakness. It’s a sign of strength. It takes a strong person to be able to actually do that,” Winburn said.
In particular, the Kentucky National Guard has a program that trains service members to be an active participant in finding help for other soldiers in need. Every soldier receives Ask Care Escort (ACE) training, instruction which teaches men and women to look out for their battle buddies and ask direct questions to those they feel might be harboring thoughts of suicide. The training then tells the men and women to go to a supervisor or other qualified member so further assistance can be found.
“We’ve really tried to convey to our soldiers that you’re still strong if you’re struggling and that it only makes you human,” Winburn said. “And there’s nothing wrong with being human and trying to get help with whatever issues you are having.”
Once soldiers come forward, the Kentucky Army National Guard shifts their focus to finding them medical assistance. Alongside more traditional avenues, the organization has formed partnerships with local nonprofit groups. Service members may participate in equine therapy through Central Kentucky Riding for Hope at the Kentucky Horse Park. In addition, the Canines Helping our Military Personnel through the Lexington Humane Society waives the adoption fee to military members that might benefit from more companionship in their lives.
And then there’s The Veterans Treatment Program, a new initiative between the University of Louisville and the Kentucky Army National Guard. Started last fall, the program aims to get both active duty and veteran National Guard members the mental health help in the fastest way possible.
“The National Guard came to us and said, ‘Our folks are having really long wait times at the VA. Can you design a program to help them out?’ And we put together this program where we’re able to get our veterans in, usually within a couple of days but definitely in a week,” said Eric Russ, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at U of L.
Unique in that few collaborative mental health efforts exist between the private sector and military, the pilot program tackles depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, two conditions that can lead to suicidal thoughts. Participants undergoing treatment have already seen improvements in both their daily lives and their relationships with others.
“My main message to veterans in general is that they’re struggling with things that can get better. Things like PTSD and depression substance use, these are all things that you can get help for,” Russ said. “So whether you come in to my program or you go somewhere else, get help. Make the call. Reach out. Be an advocate for your own care.”