The recent cover story in TIME magazine explored the disturbing reality that every day one US Army soldier commits suicide. These soldiers are not killed by a suicide bomber or a roadside IED. These soldiers are dying, an average of one a day, at their own hands. Some of the soldiers have experienced combat and some have not. The overwhelming majority of these soldiers are White males under the age of twenty-five and most of the suicides occur in the U.S. The TIME article focused on suicides in the Army, but statistics also indicate increased suicides within the Air Force, Navy and Marines. In 2011, 26% of all military deaths were due to combat while 20% of all military deaths were due to suicide.
Our military protectors are clearly suffering. So are our other protectors. Firefighters, emergency medical responders, 9-1-1 dispatchers, and law enforcement are the people who move toward local crises as most people are running away. And suicide is a growing reality among these community protectors. A recent study of suicide among Chicago firefighters demonstrated that over a twenty year span the average suicide rate was 25 suicides per 10,000, which is more than double the national suicide rate. Closer to home, a study of NC firefighter suicides over a sixteen year period demonstrated three times as many suicides as line of duty deaths (LODD’s).
Suicide has been described as a permanent response to a temporary problem. It often occurs when people have experienced loss of belonging (such as lay-offs, disability, retirement or divorce); have the knowledge and the means to harm themselves such as easy access to weapons; and have lost a sense of personal control over some aspect of their lives through things like illness, injury or addiction. People often think about suicide, but folks are hesitant to talk about these thoughts.
If someone you care about is in one of the protector roles mentioned above, don’t ignore changes in behavior such as giving away possessions as gifts or getting affairs in order such as a will, or dismiss cryptic comments about “not going on” being “hopeless” or “worthless,” or “the pain being unbearable.” Ask direct questions and listen. If the things you see and hear concern you at all, seek help. If you are one of our nation’s national or local protectors and feel depressed or have had thoughts of suicide, get help. There are effective treatments for depression and you can feel good again, and professional help can be free when needed. There are 24-hour hotlines such as 1-800-273-8255 and 1-800-844-7410 available for critical situations. Local chaplains, critical incident stress management teams, and mental health professionals familiar with the special stressors and cultures of these groups can be helpful in averting a suicide attempt or following up after a suicidal crisis. If you are concerned for yourself or for someone else, please take action to protect those who risk so much to protect us!