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Sunday, September 18, 2011

As military struggles with suicides, a push for seeking help

By Adam Ashton
Tacoma News Tribune

A Washington state social worker is circulating a petition urging federal lawmakers and the military to adopt a policy declaring that service members shouldn't be punished if they seek help for behavioral health issues, such as post-traumatic stress.

Patricia Bailey, 45, believes the lack of a firm policy on whether service members could be held back in their careers for seeking counseling is one of the main obstacles keeping people in the military from pursuing treatment.

"It will give reassurance to him that if he seeks mental health counseling nothing will be in jeopardy," said Bailey, whose 13-year marriage to a Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier ended in 2008 as stress built during his deployments to Iraq.

She's targeting a gray area in the military's evolving suicide prevention and post-traumatic stress programs. Leaders at the Pentagon and at Lewis-McChord insist service members won't face professional repercussions for seeking counseling, but it's not clear how well that message reaches down the ranks.

An April study on military suicides released by the nonprofit RAND Corporation pointed out that the Defense Department hasn't taken concrete steps to reverse a perception that service members might be retired for medical reasons or lose out on a promotion if they ask for counseling. The study received funding from the Defense Department.

Bailey got a close view of Lewis-McChord's behavioral health services both as a part-time counselor between 2002 and 2004 and as someone who later reached out for help in keeping her marriage together. She'd like to see a greater emphasis on preventive programs instead of ones that kick in after an outburst, such as an arrest.

"When my husband and I were going through everything, I asked people for help," she said. "I wasn't shy. And they said 'We can't do anything for you.' You're frustrated because you can't do anything. I didn't want my marriage to end."

She's one of many people in the South Sound who are raising their voices to draw attention to the psychological toll 10 years of warfare have taken on military families. In the past year, service clubs have organized retreats for Army couples and the United Way of Pierce County put forward a proposal to deliver more resources to military families.

The military, likewise, is looking for new approaches. Madigan Army Medical Center increased its ranks of behavioral health specialists last year. Lewis-McChord recently hired a new suicide prevention officer.
Yet the Army and the base continue to struggle with how to reach distressed service members.

The Army reported that it was investigating 32 possible suicides in July, the most in any month over the past two years. Lewis-McChord officials told Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that nine soldiers took their lives this year.

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