As suicides rise, US military seeks to tackle mental health

Written by Ashraf Khalil The Associated Press

Washington (AFP) – After completing a tour of Afghanistan in 2013, Dionne Williamson felt emotionally numb. More warning signs emerged during several years of subsequent external releases.

“It’s as if I lost myself somewhere,” said Williamson, a Navy officer who experienced confusion, depression, memory loss and chronic fatigue. “I went to my captain and said, ‘Sir, I need help. There’s something wrong.'”

As the Pentagon seeks to counter rising suicide rates in the military, Williamson’s experiences highlight the realities of service members seeking mental health assistance. For most people, just acknowledging their difficulties can be intimidating. And what comes next can be frustrating and disheartening.

Williamson, 46, eventually found stability through a month-long hospital stay and a treatment program that included horse riding. But she had to fight for years to get the help she needed. “It’s amazing how you did it,” she said.

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In March, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the creation of an independent commission to review the military’s mental health and suicide prevention programs.

According to Department of Defense data, suicides among active duty personnel increased more than 40% between 2015 and 2020. The numbers jumped 15% in 2020 alone. In longtime suicide hotspots like Alaska — service members and their families contend with extreme isolation and a harsh climate — the rate has doubled.

A study conducted by the Cost of War Project in 2021 concluded that since 9/11, four times more military and veterans have died by suicide than the number who have died in combat. The study details the stress factors of military life: “extreme exposure to trauma—psychological, physical, moral, and sexual—stress and fatigue, the influence of the military’s dominant patriarchal culture, continued access to weapons, and difficulty integrating into civilian life.”

The Pentagon did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But Austin has publicly acknowledged that the Pentagon’s current mental health offerings — including the Defense Office of Suicide Prevention set up in 2011 — have proven inadequate.

“It is imperative that we take care of all of our teammates and continue to promote that mental health and suicide prevention remain a key priority,” Austin wrote in March. “We clearly have more work to do.”

Last year, the Army released new guidelines for its commanders on how to handle mental health issues in the ranks, complete with briefing slides and text. But daunting long-term challenges remain. Many soldiers fear the stigma of recognizing mental health issues within the internal military culture of self-sufficiency. And those who seek help often find that the stigma is not only real, but exacerbated by bureaucratic hurdles.

Just like the issue of food insecurity in military families, a network of charitable organizations adjacent to the military has attempted to fill in the gaps with a variety of programs and outreach efforts.

Some are purely recreational, such as the annual Alaskan fishing tournament designed to provide fresh air and socializing for service members. Others focus more on self-care, such as the YMCA Armed Services program that offers free child care so that military parents can attend therapy sessions.

The situation in Alaska is particularly dire. In January, after a series of suicides, Sgt. Major Phil Blaisdale addressed his soldiers in an influential Instagram post. “When did suicide become the answer,” he asked. “Please send me a direct message if you need something. Please…”

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said that while deployment to Alaska can be a dream for some service members, it’s a solitary nightmare for others who need to be addressed.

“You have to pay attention to this when you see the stats jump as they are,” Murkowski said. “Now, you have everyone. You have the Joint Chiefs of Staff looking at Alaska and they say, ‘Holy smoke, what’s going on there?'”

The pressures of spreading Alaska are exacerbated by the lack of healers on the ground. During a visit to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska earlier this year, Army Secretary Christine Wormott overheard health care workers at the base saying they were understaffed and overwhelmed and could not see patients in time. If a soldier asks for help, they often have to wait weeks for an appointment.

“We have people who need our services and we can’t reach them,” a longtime adviser told Wormuth during a meeting. “We need personnel and until we get them, we will continue to kill soldiers.”

The annual combat hunting competition in Seward, Alaska, said co-founder Keith Manternach, was formed “to get the kids out of the barracks, get them off base for a day and get them out of their heads.”

The tournament, which began in 2007 and now includes more than 300 service members, includes a deep-water fishing day followed by a celebratory banquet with prizes for the largest catch, smallest catch and sickest person.

“I think there’s a huge component of mental health,” Manternach said.

Sgt. Antonio Rivera, an 18-year-old veteran who completed three tours in Iraq and a year at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, freely admits he has PTSD.

“I know I need help. There are signs and I have waited long enough,” said Rivera, 48, who is assigned to Fort Hood, Texas. “I don’t want my kids to suffer because I won’t get help.”

He does yoga, but says he needs more. He is reluctant to seek help within the military.

“Personally, I would feel more comfortable being able to talk to someone outside,” he said. “It would allow me to open up a lot more without having to worry about the impact on my career.”

Others who have spoken out say it is hard to get help.

Despite having “tons of briefings and pamphlets about suicide and PTSD” at the base, Williamson said she found herself struggling for years to get time off and treatment.

Eventually, I got into a month-long inpatient program in Arizona. When she returned, a therapist recommended equine-assisted therapy, which proved to be a major advance.

Williamson now works regularly at the Cloverleaf Horse Center in Clifton, Virginia, where riding sessions can be combined with a variety of therapeutic practices and exercises. Working with horses has long been used as a form of therapy for people with physical or mental disabilities and children with autism. But in recent years, it has been adopted to help service members suffering from anxiety and PTSD.

To be able to work with horses, you must be able to regulate your emotions. “They communicate through body language and energy,” said Shelby Morrison, director of communications at Cloverleaf. “They respond to the energies around them. They respond to negativity, positivity, anxiety, and excitement.”

Morrison said that military agents suffer from “a lot of anxiety, depression, PTSD. … We use the horse to get them off their triggers.”

For Williamson, regular riding sessions helped stabilize her. Still struggling, she said her long campaign for treatment has damaged her relationship with several key officers. She is currently on a limited assignment and is not sure if she will retire when she celebrates her 20th birthday in March.

However, she says, the equine therapy helped her feel optimistic for the first time in recent memory.

“Now even if I can’t get out of bed, I make sure to come here,” she said. “If I didn’t come here, I don’t even know where I would be.”

Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldur contributed to this report.

The National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available by calling or texting 988. There is also an online chat at 988lifeline.org.

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