New Suicide Prevention policy regains 'human element'

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Wayne Hankammer, LPC and Michelle Linn-Gust, PhD. USARPAC brought Michelle to island to help us see ourselves differently. Her inputs show us where we need to improve in caring for Soldiers and families. Linn-Gust made three presentations from 13-15 NOV, at Schofield BKS (13); USARPAC HQ (14) and Ft. Shafter Flats (15 NOV) discussing the "Language of Suicide" with Soldiers so we might better understand what perpetuates stigma. (Photo Credit: Mary Lou Amos, IMO G1)
Wayne Hankammer, LPC and Michelle Linn-Gust, PhD. USARPAC brought Michelle to island to help us see ourselves differently. Her inputs show us where we need to improve in caring for Soldiers and families. Linn-Gust made three presentations from 13-15 NOV, at Schofield BKS (13); USARPAC HQ (14) and Ft. Shafter Flats (15 NOV) discussing the "Language of Suicide" with Soldiers so we might better understand what perpetuates stigma. (Photo Credit: Mary Lou Amos, IMO G1)

New Suicide Prevention policy regains 'human element'

by: Wayne A. Hankammer. USARPAC suicide prevention counselor | .
U.S. Army | .
published: December 07, 2013

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii--U.S. Army Pacific has a new command policy regarding suicide that broadens the attack on suicide stigma, and addresses the human element in training and preparedness.

"We are missing the 'human element' in training," said Dr. Michelle Linn-Gust, former president of the American Association of Suicidology, who recently engaged more than 1000 Soldiers in Hawaii, including senior leaders on the subject of "Understanding the Language of Suicide."

Linn-Gust fully engaged in talking to audiences and they were equal to the task; they told Linn-Gust exactly what they thought.

From those exchanges she remarked that our Soldiers know about warning signs and risk factors well enough.

In response the command is addressing her observations which are reflected in a new command policy on suicide prevention and health promotion.

USARPAC has lost ten Soldiers in 2013, while the total Army has lost 278 as of DEC 2.

"What statistics fail to do is encourage people to help each other to provide human connection," said Linn-Gust. "Instead, there is a great fear within our Army to ask for or give help. This two sided fear disables connections increasing risk. Perhaps stigma is to blame?"

Linn-Gust followed a general outline that presented some ideas on how to limit the effects of stigma.
She informed all three sessions how using inappropriate terms can perpetuate stigma. For example, the term, "committed suicide" equated the act of taking one's own life as a sin and shaming to the family. She suggested using, "died by suicide" as a best choice.

Linn-Gust said she wanted people to know that suicide is a tragedy not a sin. Rather, we need to understand the suicidal mind is trapped in a hopeless place unable to see a future without pain.

A counter to the psychological pain of suicide starts with caring, Linn-Gust said. She noted to command that Soldiers need training very early in their Army lives on how to show caring as well as self-care. "After all, "she asked rhetorically," Aren't they the future of the Army?"

She said it was clear commanders overall care for their Soldiers. However, the perception of Soldiers does not always coincide with this reality.

Among the possible factors blocking a caring attitude and exposed in all three meetings she saw an overall loss of trust in our Army. Others felt a loss of empowerment to correct potentially toxic situations. Soldiers feel disconnected as a result of this environment. The real common thread, according to Linn-Gust, was fear.

"Many Soldiers fear retaliation for speaking out. Some fear loss of status or position if they seek help. Soldiers fear leadership isn't concerned about their wellbeing," said Linn-Gust.

The policy is clear that there will be no retaliation or repercussions for seeking help. In fact there is consensus from leadership that coming forward for help is to be rewarded as this demonstrates a new level of strength.

Overall the guidance addressing these concerns is that the command will build a caring and open atmosphere to foster communication. Leaders will keep working at the caring level toward having a command where all leaders will attack stigma.

The bottom line is, commanders across USARPAC will encourage help-seeking behaviors and attack stigma wherever they find it.