Task force takes up effort to prevent suicides

By on Monday, October 5th, 2009

BETHESDA, Md: Bonnie Carroll, co-chair of the congressionally mandated Suicide Prevention Task Force, aims to remove the stigma within the military of seeking mental health care.

Ms. Carroll is the founder and executive director of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. The group represents all military families who have experienced the loss of a servicemember.

Ms. Carroll and co-chair Army Maj. Gen. Philip Volpe conducted the task force’s first meeting here Oct. 1.

She said the task force represents a great change in attitude.

“This task force is a tremendous step forward on the part of the Department of Defense to look at suicide today and make a difference, to remove, once and for all, the stigma that kills,” she said. “Removing stigma is a key message. If they had a broken leg, no one would question their going to seek medical attention.

“If they’re struggling emotionally, mentally, psychologically, it is imperative that they get healthy psychologically and seek that care,” she added. “We need (servicemembers) healthy and strong in every way.”

Ms. Carroll said she’s excited that the families’ voices will be heard throughout this process. They often can provide hints about why the servicemember chose suicide, hints that wouldn’t be obvious from a fitness report or medical file. Their feedback could include a trauma from the past that had a lasting effect, she added.

“We’re working so hard to incorporate the voice of those families so the lessons they have learned can speak to those still living,” she said.

General Volpe is the deputy commander of Joint Task Force, National Capital Region Medical, based at Bethesda Naval Base, Md.

The suicide prevention task force numbers 14 and includes military, both enlisted and officer; civilians, including representatives of each service; a chaplain; family members; academics; and researchers. The group will produce a report containing their findings and recommendations to the defense secretary for improving the Defense Department’s suicide prevention program for all servicemembers.

After just the morning session, General Volpe said he’s impressed with the gravity being given to the topic by senior service leaders.

“I’m very impressed with a couple of things that we noticed right away in our first meeting,” the general said. “First off, this has high visibility and it’s at the upper levels of each military service. It also came across clearly that all of the services are doing a number of programs in communities, on installations, training programs, education programs, some that are online, some that are in person.”

The services are offering a wide variety and scope of programs, he added.

“What we are trying to do is figure out what are the best practices out there that could be shared amongst all the services,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’re trying to standardize. We’re trying to assess what the services are doing, see how well their programs are working … and then certain things could be shared and standardized.”

Certain practices would remain specific to a service, however, because of differing cultures and organization, he added.

The task force members understand the importance of the job ahead of them and that the result will be important to the nation which, General Volpe said, owes it to servicemembers to do “whatever we can to support” the men and women defending the country’s freedom and values.

“There’s enough external enemies of the United States,” he said. “They don’t need these internal enemies, too.”

The task force is expected to present its findings in about a year.

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