News: Fighting to decrease National Guard soldier suicide rates
Story by Sgt. Angela Parady
MAINE - In 2012, 349 U.S. service members committed suicide. Two hundred and ninety-five were killed during combat in Afghanistan. That number, shows that the biggest threat may be the enemy we can’t always see, and some are afraid to talk about.
The Maine Army National Guard is taking an aggressive stance to try and reduce these numbers within their reach, and is committed to expanding their suicide intervention and prevention capabilities.
Between 2006 and 2010 suicide rates in the ARNG increased, exceeding those of the active duty component, the Army Reserve, and civilian rates. In 2012, the ARNG suicide rate increased to 30.75 per 100,000 soldiers, from 27.28 per 100,000 in 2011.
“Intervention is the best form of prevention we have right now,” said Col. Andrew Gibson, the chaplain for the Maine Army National Guard.
One of the biggest issues he said, is making suicide and depression things that are acceptable to talk about.
Gibson and three other trainers conducted a two-day workshop at Camp Keyes, Augusta in November to help develop suicide-prevention and intervention skills, and working together to learn how to put individual attitudes and beliefs on hold. The only person who matters in a crisis, is the person at risk. The course is called Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, or ASIST and is produced by the Canadian company, Living Works Education, Inc.
The Adjutant General for Maine, Brig. Gen. James Campbell, stressed the importance of developing a culture of understanding.
"The Maine National Guard continues to work towards fostering an environment where it's not only ok to ask for help if you have a problem it's encouraged,” he also noted. “Mental health issues or anxiety or depression, is curable. For me, that's the key. Not only can you recover, you can build on it. In my mind, people who get help can be stronger and better afterwards. So we have to change the culture at the lowest level.”
The ASSIST workshops is for any person in the Maine National Guard who is in a position of trust, to include professionals, senior and junior leaders, support staff, medical personnel, youth workers, and volunteers among others.
Elizabeth Munsey, the Suicide Prevention program manager and native of Brunswick, emphasized the importance of life saving measures.
“Crisis intervention training programs, like ASIST, equip people to respond knowledgeably and competently to persons at risk of suicide,” continued Elizabeth Munsey, the Suicide Prevention Program Manager and native of Brunswick. “Just as CPR skills make physical first aid possible, training in suicide intervention develops the skills used in suicide first aid. This workshop is for caregivers who want to feel more comfortable, confident and competent in helping to prevent the immediate risk of suicide.”
Gibson, who works with soldiers in a confidential environment said the course provides the opportunity to better understand the needs of a person at risk of suicide and learn how to use suicide “first aid” to connect, understand and assist with persons at risk, identify invitations for help, and listen to reasons for living. This can be as valuable in saving someone’s life as a first responder during a medical emergency.
“Every soldier is taught basic combat lifesaving skills and CPR as soon as they get to basic training,” said Gibson. “They are taught to save a life in the physical sense, so why are we not teaching them how to step in to help a fellow soldier who may be giving off signals that, yes, suicide is a thought for them.”
Maine first implemented the ASSIST program in December 2003. Since then, 288 individuals have completed the class, and 73 of those individuals were in the last calendar year, said Munsey. The most recent class was filled to capacity, and then some.
“The increased number of attendees shows that the MEARNG is committed to increasing the number of ASSIST trained soldiers within the guard,” said Munsey. “The hope is that these soldiers will recognize suicidal invitations and provide care until a trained professional can arrive on the scene. The increased interest shows that our soldiers want to have this knowledge base to help save a life, if needed.”