The Department of Defense’s Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness recently released an inaugural Annual Suicide Report (ASR). Along with data regarding suicides among Active Component, Guard and Reserve Service members, it also included the first ever number of suicide deaths among military spouses and dependents. According to the ASR, there were 186 reported military family member suicide deaths in CY17. Among those, 123 suicide decedents were military spouses and the majority were females (69%) under the age of 40 (82%). The ASR aimed to provide a more timely release of Department of Defense (DoD) data compared to the annual Department of Defense Suicide Event Report (DoDSER), which provides a much more in-depth evaluation of military suicide data, but does not incorporate any data about families.
Including information on suicide deaths among military family members is critical for improved efforts to support these family members and, ideally, reduce numbers of suicide deaths. Many groups have advocated for tracking military family member suicide data as a way to better understand a problem that has been discussed anecdotally for over a decade. While tracking these deaths is clearly needed, we also need to better understand the risk factors leading to suicidal thoughts and behaviors among this population. These risk factors are different for each person, but there may be some that are more common among military spouses. It would be helpful for suicide prevention efforts to better identify them.
As both a military spouse and a mental health professional, I have seen and personally experienced the stresses that come with military life. Sometimes these stresses are fleeting and sometimes they become all-encompassing. Regardless of what a person is facing, they need to know there is help available during times of crisis.
Beyond offering help in the form of resources and access to care, we also need to better understand barriers impacting military spouses’ willingness to ask for and receive support. Stigma is often discussed as a reason many Service members and Veterans avoid reaching out for mental health services. For many years, the DoD and the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) have been actively involved in stigma reduction efforts. A 2014 Rand report examined the issue in detail and discussed best practices along with recommendations for additional research and policies to address it. Public service announcements and video campaigns such as “Real Warriors Personal Stories”, “I’m good”, “The Power of 1,” and “Talking about it matters” are all examples of these efforts DoD and VHA have used to convince Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Veterans that asking for help is okay.
There may be times when military spouses avoid seeking help due to stigma as well. I have personally been told by some military spouses that they are afraid (or have even been told) that if they seek mental health treatment, it could negatively impact their Service member’s career. Whether their active-duty spouse has a particular job/security clearance/leadership role etc., some may believe that their mental health concerns could jeopardize any of those. Dispelling this myth and encouraging spouses to seek help when needed can increase utilization of mental health supports that exist.
In 2014, CNN-digital published a series of stories called “The Uncounted” about family members (spouses, children, siblings and parents) of Service members who have either contemplated suicide, attempted suicide or lost a loved one to suicide. Each person in the story shared raw and tragic details about their experiences with suicide and put a face on this issue. One of the profiles in the story is of “Liz”, a Marine Corps spouse who bravely discussed her struggles with suicidal thoughts following many experiences common to military spouses: dreading deployments, feelings of isolation, challenges with employment, fears about her husband’s safety, feeling that she couldn’t complain since her husband was fighting a war, and feeling confused when navigating unwritten expectations which often come with a military spouse role.
Combining the data from the DoD’s recent report with the stories shared in venues such as the CNN story offers a chance to improve delivery of mental health services to a population of military family members who have experienced many challenges resulting from the past two decades of conflict. The military has placed emphasis on caring for the caregiver and regularly checks-in on chaplains, military mental health providers and front-line medical personnel in deployed units. These efforts acknowledge the importance of supporting the Active Duty member’s professional support structure. Similar efforts should be focused on caring for the military member’s personal support structure…their spouse.
As military spouses, we need to be reminded that there is support available to us. Multiple resources exist in and around military installations such as chaplains, Military Family Life Counselors and on-base/post counseling centers. Also, Military One Source offers non-medical counseling along with military spouse peer-to-peer consultation services provided by clinicians with a master’s degree in psychology or other social science field.
Finally, when a Service member or veteran experiences a suicidal crisis, they are reminded that they can contact the Military/Veteran Crisis Line by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1. Let’s be sure to remind military families that this crisis line is available to them too.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
April Thompson, LCSW, is a clinical social worker currently working as a Military Behavioral Health Social Worker with the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University (USU) in Bethesda, Maryland.