A few weeks ago, my best friend called me at 7 am. Although we talk almost every day, it was unusual for her to call so early, so my heart skipped a beat when I picked up the phone. All I could hear on the other end of the line was sobbing. When she finally caught her breath she uttered, “My nephew just killed himself. He jumped off the 52 freeway bridge!” I was speechless. “You mean the 24 year-old?” I exclaimed. “Was he depressed? He was such a good kid. I don’t remember him ever getting in trouble. Are you sure he died?” I asked. What a stupid thing to say, “Are you sure?” I just couldn’t wrap my brain around why he would do that. I couldn’t stop picturing his face and the image of him falling to his death. What was he thinking? Was it impulsive? Did he give any clues?
Suicide is one thing in life you can’t recover from. There are no take backs. So why do people do it? I believe it always comes down to one thing; a person feels her or she has no other option. He or she sees no other plausible way out and ending life is the only solution. The military suicide rate has now surged to nearly one per day. Each one of those comes with a face and a personal story, just like my friend’s nephew.
Our country is still very reactive when it comes to mental health. We wait until there is a problem to get help and by then, it is often hard to fix. It’s even more complicated in the military. There is the issue of stigma and people wonder whether seeking help would impact their career.
Having had the opportunity to work at the Marine Corps boot camp for a year, I watched some young adults get transformed into Marines. I gained a richer understanding of how these early values and ideas develop. We expect them to be emotionally and physically strong and require them to perform instantaneous obedience to orders at all times. As a psychotherapist, watching this three-month recruit process, it became very clear that this was not a population of people that were going to say “hey, I’m feeling a little off I think I need to see a therapist.” Early screening is important. If you or someone you know would like, you can take this quick mental health self-assessment.
In my book The Inside Battle: Our Military Mental Health Crisis, released on Sept. 11, I chronicle my personal story about how I had the opportunity to change that culture. While working at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD), I was fortunate to have landed in the hands of some incredible Marine leaders. After multiple, lengthy discussions we developed a comprehensive plan to bring mental health services to the drill instructors. Consequently, we took all 500 of them (historically known as the “best of the best”), the majority having had multiple deployments, and routinely put them through individual and group counseling. We implemented a detailed approach in which we helped Marines discover what personally happens to them while under stress. Do you drink too much? Do you socially isolate? Do you become enraged? These were typical questions we asked.
We helped drill instructors develop a personal plan to recognize warning signs and specific tools to immediately put into action, before things could spiral out of control. We augmented the individual sessions with groups, and the camaraderie proved to be equally as important, providing great peer support. Between individual meetings and groups, the drill instructors were seen every six weeks. Now, whenever I hear the issue of stigma with regards to getting help, I cringe. When everyone is doing it from the top down, there is no stigma.
It turns out that my friend’s nephew did have his suicide planned. He left a note to his family placed next to his bible with a highlighted psalm (depicting a person in severe internal turmoil). He was in emotional pain and needed it to end. Could he have been helped? We will never know. Through my experience however, I have seen these crisis situations can get turned around. With the right tools, people can learn strategies to help them cope. For every option you can give someone in crisis, it’s like shinning a ray of light in his or her dark place.
With more than a million men and women set to return home from the Middle East and a third of them expected to be plagued with combat stress, now is the time to change the way we view mental health.
Marjorie Morrison is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPC). She has a private practice and has also done extensive work with the U.S. military, stateside and around the globe. During her time at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) she wrote a proactive counseling program for drill instructors that was very effective. She is also creating a consulting group, Proactive Military Counseling (PMC) to teach and train counselors and agencies to work more effectively with the military utilizing a preventive approach.
This blog was originally posted for Military Pathways on 10/04/12 at www.militarymentalhealth.org.