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A recent national survey reports because of COVID-19, most Americans feel suicide prevention should be a national priority, National Institute of Mental Health Director Joshua A. Gordon tweeted Tuesday. And, they are feeling more open to talking about mental health as a risk factor for suicide.

September is Suicide Prevention Month, and there are many resources on post that can bring people together to help each other – especially those who are suffering even more because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year’s theme, “Connect to Protect,” highlights the important role that feeling connected to family, friends, community and resources can play in preventing suicide. It also has the added benefit of reducing loneliness and stress due to COVID-19.

Suicide prevention is a year-long priority for the Department of Defense. However, during Suicide Prevention Month, the department focuses more on this complex issue, emphasizing resources and support available, especially during this time of isolation and uncertainty.

Research indicates a person with social connections they can count on and a sense they belong can protect against suicide. However, feeling lonely and burdensome can increase the risk for some individuals.

There are on-post resources offering support.

The Fort Lee Suicide Prevention Program Office is committed to preventing suicide among service members and families. Team Lee’s Employee Assistance Program provides resources for civilians and DOD employees in need.

“It is important for each of us to focus on how we can connect to protect the people in our lives,” said Katina Oates, Fort Lee Suicide Prevention program manager. “We have a moral duty to protect each other—now more than ever. You can start by checking in with people and letting them know you care.”

NIMH lists some of the main risk factors for suicide are mental illnesses such as:

  • Depression
  • Substance abuse disorder
  • Family history of a mental illness or substance abuse disorder
  • Family history of suicide
  • Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse

Unfortunately, approximately 60-70 percent of military personnel with mental health symptoms do not seek care, according to the DOD Psychological Health Center of Excellence.

Service members, their families and civilians often fear a stigma associated with seeking mental health care, so they do nothing to connect with others. The debilitating symptoms of a mental illness also can prevent them from connecting.

The pandemic-related isolation and physical distancing requirements may make people more susceptible to feeling alone and unnoticed.

Psychological Health Center of Excellence Health Systems Specialist Lauren Restivo, suggested in a 2018 article ways leaders and others can dispel the stigma and encourage those who need help to get it.  

Set aside time to talk within units or with co-workers about mental health to relay the following:

  • The prevalence of certain mental health disorders may help a team member to understand they are not alone.
  • Mental health disorders are treatable and treatment is an effective way to recover.
  • There are biological aspects of mental health disorders. For example, low serotonin levels can contribute to depression, and some disorders are linked to genetic predispositions. This might help people see the development of their disorder is not something they can directly control.
  • Motivate community members to think their overall wellness includes both mental health and physical health. It may help to emphasize that health exists on a continuum, and there are some things one can do to influence one’s health, and other aspects are out of one’s direct control. Likening mental health to physical health in this way serves to destigmatize mental health disorders and empower people.
  • Draw parallels between mental health and physical health by saying, “You wouldn’t ignore a broken arm, and you shouldn’t ignore a mental health concern.” This can help them understand that mental health symptoms are just as important to take care of as physical symptoms.
  • Address their career concerns by emphasizing that voluntarily seeking help may reduce career impacts. Some service members and DOD civilians identify career concerns as a barrier to seeking mental health care. Advise the team that proactive and preventive actions can minimize potential career impacts related to mental health as mental health symptoms that go unchecked and worsen over time can result in command-directed evaluations.

Helping to remove the stigma attached to mental health issues and encouraging people to get the care they need is a great step in connecting to protect service members and their families, as well as other Fort Lee community members who might be struggling as well.

Those looking for more ways to help change the atmosphere about mental health and find more resources, checkout the PHCoE sponsored Real Warriors Campaign, https://www.realwarriors.net/, which is a multimedia public awareness campaign helping to combat the stigma associated with seeking care and to encourage service members to reach out for appropriate treatment.

“We encourage you to take steps in September and year-round to ‘Connect to Protect’ with individuals and military families,” Oates concluded. “We cannot do it alone. Please join us during September by participating in suicide prevention activities and programs we have scheduled.” 

For more information about the Suicide Prevention Program, call one of the following numbers, 804-765-3941, 804-734-9693, 9073, 9182, or 9234. For more information about the EAP, please call 804-734-9693, or 804-931-5111.