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American Forces Press Service

Woodson: Vigilance is Vital to Combat Troop, Veteran Suicide

By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 20, 2012 – The ongoing battle against service member and veteran suicide requires community, commitment, and attention to three critical areas, a senior Defense Department official said here today.

Addressing attendees at the annual DOD and Department of Veterans Affairs suicide prevention conference, Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs and director of the TRICARE Management Activity, acknowledged that suicide is a “very, very tough problem.”

The conference, which began today and ends June 22, drew hundreds of health care providers, researchers, and others from what Woodson called a broad community of people from government and private industry working to understand and defeat the occurrence of suicide in the ranks and among the nation’s military veterans.

Woodson said employing vigilance, reducing stigma and sharing success stories are essential to the struggle to end suicide.

Though friends, families, and leaders at all levels have been mobilized to be aware of the issue of suicide, Woodson said, all must remain dedicated to understand how to “prevent our friends and fellows from taking their own lives.”

“Vigilance cannot be over-emphasized, because we know that suicide is often an impulsive act in the face of life stressors,” Woodson noted.

People need to know what to look out for, where to get help, and how to direct those in need to access that help, he said.

“We do know something about prevention, and we need to be relentless in sharing what we know,” Woodson added.

Woodson recommended that military leaders strive to establish a positive command climate and foster a sense of trust in their units. Those actions, he said, will build a foundation for a unit that responds to individual needs.

“Be a visible and regular presence,” Woodson urged. Indicators of potential suicide, which include alcohol or illegal drug abuse, criminal behavior and misuse of prescription drugs, should be triggers for action, he said.

Woodson said eliminating the stigmas service members may perceive as being attached to seeking mental health care is “the most critical breakthrough” that can happen.

“We need to do more,” he said. “The benefits of being able to counsel someone freely, in confidence, about the challenges that life has presented are incalculable.”

Leaders must be particularly careful about responding angrily to a service member who is struggling, he said.

“One of our jobs [as leaders] in this cauldron is to help lower the temperature,” Woodson noted. There are teaching moments -- not lecture moments -- present in every life crisis situation, he said. Speaking up and offering the right guidance at those moments, he added, can save a life.

It’s also important to share victories and success stories, Woodson told conference attendees.

“We need to repeat what we know, in formal and informal settings,” he said. “We need to share stories … where awareness and intervention changed the direction of an individual who was [traveling] down the wrong and tragic pathway.”

The military and veteran communities must make greater strides in assisting individuals who need help before a suicide occurs, Woodson said.

“We can usually see the complications and the stressors of a person at risk,” he said. The goal, he added, is to get better at intervention “before a tragedy occurs.”

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