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Kevlar for the Mind: ‘Suck it up' won't help deal with suicidal thoughts

Jun. 14, 2012 - 03:12PM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 14, 2012 - 03:12PM  |  
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About the author

Bret A. Moore is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq and is the author of "Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life after Deployment." Click here if you want to send an email. Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.

Suicide has been the focus of many of my past columns. Each time I finish a column on the topic, I tell myself that it will be the last for a while. However, because this issue is so salient to service members and their loved ones, it's hard to ignore the topic when it hits the front pages.

Army Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard recently made headlines for what were seen as insensitive comments about suicide.

A day after attending a memorial service for a soldier who died by suicide, the commander of Fort Bliss, Texas, posted this in his blog:

"Soldiers who commit suicide leave their families, their buddies and their units to literally clean up their mess. There is nothing noble about suicide. … Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us."

He later">apologized for his remarks.

Regardless of whether his comments were a product of strong emotions triggered by his attendance at a memorial service or an unsophisticated view of suicide, views like this are worrying.

The military spends millions of dollars each year combating suicide. Campaigns targeting stigma, how to recognize suicide risk in your buddy, and what to do when you have thoughts of hurting yourself are as much a part of the military as saluting.

But little progress in this area will be made unless all senior leaders change their attitudes about mental illness and suicide or at least keep their contrarian views to themselves.

Senior leaders must realize that they have the ability to help the fight against suicide. For this to happen, they must challenge their current beliefs.

It is wrong to think of suicide as a "selfish act." Even though it may be distorted thinking (which is common in depression), the service member may actually feel a sense of nobility as he will no longer be a burden to his loved ones once dead.

Leaders must understand that the philosophy of "suck it up" is not helpful when dealing with depression, post-traumatic stress and certainly not suicidal thinking. If anything, it creates more feelings of inadequacy and shame when the advice doesn't work.

Finally, senior leaders must realize that public commentary about suicide is not the only way the battle will be won or lost. Informal conversations with junior leaders will, in part, shape their views, which will either maintain the cultural status quo or help shape a new generation of leaders.

It's an incredible responsibility, but one that comes with leadership.

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