Thursday, November 29, 2012

The U.S. Military’s Suicide Epidemic: A Crisis of Wellbeing

By Josh McLaughlin, Senior Government Consultant

The suicide rate for active-duty U.S. military personnel is at a record high, with 323 confirmed or suspected so far in 2012 -- that is a rate of more than one per day -- according to the Pentagon. The Army and Navy both already broke their respective annual records, while the Air Force and Marine Corps are not far from surpassing their own.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described the suicide situation as an “epidemic.” It is. It is also a travesty of epic proportion.

With service members taking their own lives more than the enemies we face abroad do, it is now clearer than ever that military leaders must take action to get to the root of the problem. And they must be more vigilant about preventing suicide by protecting our military’s wellbeing -- all of the time.

I served on active duty in the Army for seven years, deploying overseas on multiple occasions, and have since transferred into the Army Reserve, where I continue to serve this great nation. My father served in the Navy for 24 years. The military has played a pivotal role for me my entire life. I consider this an overall positive.

But also because of this, I have experienced the effects of suicide from multiple vantage points: as a young man attending funerals, or overhearing my parents talk about someone they knew taking their life, and then later as an officer myself. During my time on active duty, I never went a long period of time without hearing about a suicide on my post, or even occasionally within my brigade. With each loss, I remember people always saying how senseless it was, how no one saw it coming, and that the person displayed few, if any, of the high-risk behaviors we now commonly attribute to someone in need of help.

The Department of Defense (DoD) unveiled the Total Force Fitness (TFF) framework in 2010 to attempt to address service member wellbeing. The Army has its own program, the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program, released in 2009. The CSF program includes the 240-question Global Assessment Tool (GAT), which is administered annually. I took part in CSF and GAT while on active duty. I had my own frustrations with it, while many critics point to an overly lengthy questionnaire and the fact that it only “touches” soldiers once a year. These programs have been in place for several years, but service member suicides continue to trend upward, so it is clear that they are not working in their current state.

What is lacking is a holistic DoD-wide campaign to regularly measure, analyze, and address all aspects of service members’, as well as family members’, wellbeing. To be effective, it must be an integrated and ongoing part of the everyday lives of everyone in the military community, because understanding the core components of a person’s wellbeing is essential to being able to systematically improve that wellbeing.

Gallup knows from research it has conducted over many years throughout the world that there are five universal, interconnected elements of wellbeing that shape each person’s life: Career, Social, Financial, Physical, and Community. All of these need to work together for a person to thrive.

Military leaders need to first gauge how service members fare in each of these areas to even begin to understand why the wellbeing of so many in their ranks is suffering to such a devastating degree. These data, pulled from across the services, will allow key stakeholders (medical professionals, leaders, and policymakers) to tackle the universal problem of suicide throughout the military and to boost the wellbeing of all personnel.

In the military we use data, and lots of it, to inform and advise commanders on what the enemy is up to. We collect and pore over these data in order to make informed recommendations to the commander for how to get ahead of the enemy's OODA (Observe -- Orient -- Decide -- Act) loop. It is time we do the same to combat suicide.

Our soldiers and their families have given so much to this nation; we owe it to them to give them the most effective tools to battle this epidemic.

For more information about Gallup’s wellbeing work, click here.

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