2nd Infantry Division Soldiers on front lines in fight against suicide
The 2nd Infantry Division took a break from training in Korea on Thursday as part of an Army-wide suicide prevention and awareness stand-down to further educate Soldiers on the warning signs of suicide and let Soldiers know it is okay to ask for help when you need it.
The unit-led training emphasized the point that suicidal thoughts can affect all Soldiers, regardless of age, gender or rank. The training included facts and discussions on the risk factors and warning signs of suicide as well as vignettes designed to help Soldiers visualize the subtle signs of a Soldier in need. The Soldiers also heard about different programs and efforts their units are using to overcome an enemy that isn't always easy to spot.
The 2nd ID's fight against suicide is more than just a multi-pronged attack though; it's an all-out assault from every angle. Of all the ways the Army tries to combat suicide within its ranks, the 2nd Infantry Division has found Soldier intervention to be a key factor in the division's low suicide rate.
While the Army's per capita suicide rate eclipsed the civilian rate in 2009, the 2nd ID is unique among Army divisions in that it has not suffered a suicide in two years. The division attributes its success preventing suicides to one environmental factor, restrictions on personally owned weapons in Korea, and six unit initiatives; resiliency training for all Soldiers, removing the stigma associated with seeking help, CCTV monitoring of communal areas, barracks policies that enable interventions, and a holistic approach to individual improvement.
"We take resiliency training, leader engagement and peer empowerment extremely seriously here in 2ID," said Maj. Gen. Edward C. Cardon, commanding general, 2nd ID. "This is about individual accountability and collective responsibility. Our Soldiers are our greatest asset and we must ensure they know how valuable they are, as Soldiers and human beings."
And while these initiatives are an important part of the division's suicide prevention plan, Lt. Col. Andrew C. Kim, the 2nd ID surgeon, said peer and leader intervention has been an invaluable component in the division's success.
"We have developed a peer-to-peer based training program where leaders are engaging Soldiers at the lowest levels to promote attitudes that compel protective relationships among peers throughout our ranks," said Kim. "As a result, peer-to-peer interventions are taking place at four times the rate of professional interventions. This is a healthy sign, because it shows us that the stigma associated with seeking help for suicidal thoughts is starting to fade away. "
Kim said 80 percent of interventions are now made by non-professionals as a result of peers being empowered with the knowledge that they are the first line of defense. Rather than relying on a chaplain or medical professional to observe the risk factors associated with suicide, the battle-buddy system has starting filling that role in the 2nd ID.
Recently, a staff sergeant in the division was approached by another Soldier struggling with some stressful situations in his life. The staff sergeant engaged the Soldier in a conversation and actively listened to him until he revealed he had been having thoughts of suicide. After reassuring the Soldier and lifting his spirits, the staff sergeant convinced the Soldier to talk to a mental health specialist and then stayed with the Soldier until they found professional help.
"All this guy was looking for was an outlet," the staff sergeant said. "With all the training we go through people are more aware that it is okay to ask for help. And with the comfort level among peers, and the trust and camaraderie you build over time, it leaves Soldiers feeling more comfortable approaching someone they have a connection with."
The key to helping someone is being prepared.
"You never know who is going through those hard times," the staff sergeant said. "You have to be friendly, don't turn anyone away. You have to always be open to listen when someone needs you."
Peer involvement has affected other statistics as well. Suicide attempts are down 42 percent. The combined figures on gestures, attempts and ideations are down 54 percent, with ideations making up a larger portion of the combined number than ever before; a positive sign indicating that Soldiers recognize when help is needed, in themselves and their buddies, said Kim.
"Not only do more Soldiers recognize the risk factors associated with suicide and stepping in when they are needed, more Soldiers now know it's okay to ask for help if they need it," said Kim.
"More and more Soldiers are recognizing the warning signs of someone struggling with suicide ideations," said Lt. Col. Samuel Lee, the division's chaplain. "Our ACE training has Soldiers asking questions when they see some of those warning signs, and then they follow through with actively listening to the individual before finally escorting them to their chain of command, a chaplain, or mental health professional."
Lee also echoed Kim's views about that the negative stereotypes associated with asking for help.
"As an organization, we have always asked our Soldiers to carry a tremendous load," said Lee. "Everyone has different coping mechanisms when it comes to dealing with stress, and in the past our Soldiers have been reluctant to ask for help. We have been telling Soldiers for a long time that for an individual to recognize their own need for help is a sign of great strength, not a sign of weakness. Also, Soldiers realize that seeking help isn't a negative event in your career path, and that is making it easier for Soldiers to come forward.