The Army’s latest suicide prevention efforts involve getting psychiatrists and counselors as close as possible to the problem – the home front.
This week brought news that 349 service members – active-duty and reservists – took their own lives in 2012. That sets another record, and a sizeable jump from 2009. Suicide is now the most common form of death for soldiers, according to a statement from Army chief of staff Gen. Ray Odierno in August.
Fort Campbell had 14 suicides last year. According to reports released to WPLN under the Freedom of Information Act, one drove his car into a lake. Another overdosed on prescription drugs. A young soldier hung himself in his barracks.
Sgt. Brandon McCoy was found dead in a West Tennessee motel room with a gunshot wound to the head.
“I wear his dog tags every day,” says Alicia McCoy. “They were hanging on the rearview mirror in his car.”
McCoy’s widow says she can’t change what happened, but she contends the Army could have done more.
When her husband returned from Iraq, he showed signs of post traumatic stress disorder, on edge in public.
“I’m watching him, and his trigger finger never stopped moving, constantly,” she says.
And after returning from a tour in Afghanistan, McCoy says she’d wake up with her husband’s hands wrapped around her throat. She told him get help or get a divorce.
So he scheduled an appointment and trekked to the Fort Campbell hospital. Alicia tagged along.
“I sat there and watched this person ask my husband, ‘do you feel like hurting yourself today? No sir. Do you feel like hurting anybody else today? No sir.’ And I’m going, ‘are you kidding me?’” she says.
McCoy says her husband was sent home with a prescription for sleeping pills and anti-depressants and told to come back in 90 days.
The Army has admitted to being overwhelmed by this multi-year mental health crisis. A shortage of counselors and psychiatrists hasn’t helped.
But a hiring spree has padded the ranks, and psychiatrists are being deployed to the frontlines of the suicide fight – places like Fort Campbell. And instead of locating in the post hospital, they’re setting up shop where soldiers live and work.
Maj. Ashley Chatigny heads a counseling team situated so soldiers with the 101st Airborne’s 4th Brigade walk by her office every day.
As a Blackhawk flies overhead, Chatigny says soldiers can drop in for a chat any morning without an appointment. Maybe they’ll see someone they know, and that’s ok. After a decade of war, everyone’s got cumulative stress.
“It’s almost like a street credibility,” she says. “You bring your buddy in and you see that there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Having counselors close by isn’t exactly new. The proximity is normal during deployments.
Suicide: ‘The Heart Attack of Psychiatry’
Fort Carson, Colorado, was the first to bring these embedded teams back home. Now more than half a dozen posts are following suit.
Chatigny considers it primary care for the brain.
“We say the heart attack of psychiatry is a suicide,” she says. “Just like with hypertension or high cholesterol, if we can prevent them from actually having this disorder for a long time, we can actually prevent a heart attack possibly.”
There’s a term used when counselors or chaplains have to swoop in to rescue a suicidal soldier. It’s called a “diving catch.” And there have been fewer since mental health teams began rubbing elbows with this brigade, says Fort Campbell’s head psychiatrist, Joe Wise.
“That’s what we’re seeing as we stand up these embedded teams,” Wise says. “We are able to prevent more of these diving catches.”
Wise admits it’s too early to give all the credit to making psychiatrists more familiar faces around Fort Campbell.
The post has tried it all – hotlines, buddy systems and spouse training. In 2009, all combat preparation stopped for days to focus on suicide prevention.
But Alicia McCoy’s husband sat through those special suicide briefings and knew well the warning signs. So McCoy remains skeptical of the latest efforts, especially considering the suicide numbers continue to rise.
“I’m a very show-me person,” she says. “I’ve got to see it to believe it.”