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Protecting Our Troops: An Increase in Awareness

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An increase in suicide rates over the past four years is an indicator of the stress currently being placed on military forces. Army Times reported that in 2008, 128 soldiers committed suicide, the highest number in history. Military leaders are rightfully concerned with this increase. 

Sergeant Major of the Army, Kenneth Preston, spoke to the House Appropriations subcommittee February 4, 2009. "As I travel around the Army, the biggest question I get is, 'When are we going to see more than 12 months of dwell time between deployments?'" he said. Reportedly, three fourths of the members who had committed suicide were members who had deployed. Surprisingly, more than half of those soldiers had been home for more than a year. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur following a life-threatening event like military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults like rape. When an individual does not recover over time on their own and their symptoms get worse, they have most likely developed PTSD. There has been an increase in cases of PTSD in troops and this dangerous condition if not treated can lead to mental health issues. Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Rodney McKinley, reported that the Air Force has 400 mental health specialists who are trained by national experts in advanced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder treatment. "We want families who have lost loved ones to suicide to understand how deeply we feel their losses and that we are committed to doing everything possible to prevent this tragedy in our Army," commented Army Secretary Pete Geren. 

It has become more important now than ever to recognize behavior changes in our fellow airmen and soldiers. Some signs to look for in someone suspected to have suicidal thoughts are: depression, uncharacteristic behaviors, formulation of plans to include the way to kill oneself, withdrawal from social activities, finalizing personal affairs and giving away personal items. 

The alarming rise in suicide and other issues such as substance abuse, sexual assault and mental health across the active military services is not taken lightly in the West Virginia National Guard. The newly appointed state Prevention Coordinator, SSgt Jessica Cunningham, is able to get our troops and their families the help they need such as prevention training and outreach services. She has a Bachelor Degree in Psychology from Marshall University and previously worked as a case manager for Prestera Center for Mental Health. Staff Sgt. Cunningham commented, "At this time, I personally have not encountered any suicide cases; however, it is important to stress that this does not mean suicide is not a concern for our state. It is important for members to know and recognize the warning signs and the risk factors of suicide so that they can assist a buddy in need. The Prevention Treatment Outreach (PTO) program is able to provide suicide information to educate service members and commanders of these signs and factors." Military members are protected in the program and consultations are highly confidential. The West Virginia National Guard PTO program has been available to military members and their families since 2007. West Virginia was fortunate to be a pilot state for the program. Only 35 states currently offer this program to their National Guard members. 

"The program is able to help members and their families in finding assistance when struggling with substance abuse and/or mental health needs. The program works hard to find treatment near the members' homes that will meet their needs and it often will be of little or no cost to the member. The program is also able to provide numerous types of prevention information and resources for service members and their families. "Whether an individual is struggling with substance abuse, alcohol abuse, poor mental health, or just needing someone to talk to, there are numerous resources to meet the needs." added Staff Sgt. Cunningham. She may be contacted in the Substance Abuse Office at (304) 380-6495 or at jessica.f.cunningham@us.army.mil seven days a week. 

Another great resource to military members and their families is the newly appointed West Virginia National Guard Director of Psychological Health, Elizabeth Coffey. Mrs. Coffey is a licensed professional counselor with 16 years of experience who provides clinical assessments and case management to military members and their families for a wide variety of issues. The service she offers is completely free of charge. Since the start of this program in January 2009, Mrs. Coffey has had an overwhelming response. Both Air and Army National Guard members are encouraged to utilize this program. "This is an option for someone to talk to an objective source," added Mrs. Coffey speaking of guardsmen. She is a civilian and can offer an outside perspective of expertise to military members. Expressing her concern of the stigma that often comes with military members asking for help, she explained that her program is completely confidential, so members and their families are protected. Educating members on mental health and substance abuse is a high priority. "Wellness education is my passion," commented Mrs. Coffey. She is working to coordinate training for all Air and Army units in the state. Contact Mrs. Coffey at 304-546-1026 or elizabeth.coffey@us.army.mil. Her office is located at Joint Force Headquarters in Charleston. 

Leaders should let their troops know they are safe and in good hands if they ask for help. The West Virginia National Guard is a strong supportive family; for that reason it may not be out of the ordinary for a member to confide in another member for help instead of seeking a professional. It is important to engage members and establish genuine relationships.

Helpful Resources:

WV Air National Guard Chaplains: Capt. John McDonough (304) 341-6147
Capt. Jack Miller

WV Army National Guard Chaplains: Lt. Col. Gary Coffey (304) 561-6490
Lt. Col. Bruce Reed (304) 561-6328

WV Family Assistance Center: 1-866-986-4326

Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (military press "1")

Internet resources: www.militarymentalhealth.org
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