SOF Suicide Prevention

WASHINGTON, DC – United States Special Operations Command hosted a suicide prevention conference Oct. 23-25, at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., to develop and integrate a robust Special Operations Forces suicide prevention program.

The meeting consisted of SOF command representatives, academic leaders, chaplains, psychiatrists and doctors discussing existing service specific programs to ensure SOF- unique aspects are improved and standardized throughout the force.

“We need to have a coordinated approach to mitigating suicide,” said Cmdr. Winston Shearon, Marine Corps Special Operations Command Chaplain. “We have to have a cooperative view that takes into account multiple cultures in approaching our service members and families in a caring and compassionate way that brings credible, validated help to our people.”

According to Shearon, one of the benefits of having a conference like this is it allowing attendees to set aside their service specific views in order to obtain a larger cooperative view for helping others.

The first day consisted of component representatives providing an overview of their current suicide prevention programs and providing insight into what aspects are successful and what areas need improvement in the future.

Dr. Lanny Berman, the Executive Director for the American Association of Suicidology, addressed prevention measures and indentified some risk factors that lead to suicide, including substance abuse, anger, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness.

“Suicide in not only a military concern, it’s a national concern,” said Berman. “If you want to solve a problem, you really need to understand the problem first.”

According to Berman, of 153 suicide survivors surveyed, 25 percent acted within the first five minutes of having the impulse, while 75 percent acted within the first hour. By limiting risk, such as access to firearms, which were used in 49 percent of U.S. Army suicides in 2010, it allows for the temporary feeling of hopelessness to subside without permanent fatal consequences.

The second day of the conference focused on better understanding the effects of suicide within the SOF community and implementing a SOCOM wide prevention initiative developed from the best practices of service unique programs.

The goal of the new strategy would be to build a robust resiliency program incorporating the body, mind and spirit, and building from the strength of the SOF ethos. It would also involve a deliberate and comprehensive process to include the entire chain of command. The process includes screening and assessing holistic programs for prevention, intervention and postvention care. It would also educate service members and their families in order to promote overall health and well being, instill trust, confidence and hope, and whenever possible, prevent suicide within the SOF community.

Another important goal of the USSOCOM suicide prevention program is to mitigate the stigma associated with seeking help by service members. Family members can also play an important role in identifying and seeking assistance for their loved ones.

“Family members call me frequently and say ‘Chaps, I don’t know who else to call, can you help me with this subject,’” said Shearon. “And often, those are dark paths that they are traveling, so you can not help but to help families when you address suicide…the one thing you can’t do is let it go.”

The final day of the conference allowed an opportunity for attendees to discuss the challenge of suicide data sharing and record keeping. Since accurate statistics are needed in order to track the problem, it’s vital to ensure the information is easily accessible by all services to provide support to their people. This also allows the command to effectively manage those individuals considered to be ‘at risk’ for suicide.

As the conference wrapped up, the takeaways were positive and laid the groundwork for a more comprehensive SOF wide prevention program. A suicide prevention program that supports both operators and enablers forward deployed and at home, including their families, will ensure service members are educated and have the resources needed to cope with whatever issues may be confronting them.

“There are options,” said Shearon. “Don’t let what looks like only one option, be your driving course of action. Let’s get together and explore some options and find out why you can live, and live with hope.”

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