Suicide rates in the Army continue to challenge all who serve our great Nation. Last year's record breaking numbers point to the disturbing dilemma that continues to this hour. This is disturbing because there is no institution in the world that does more in the effort to prevent suicide than the US Military. With multiple agencies, programs and events, suicide prevention remains a top priority within leadership in every branch of the Military. Excellent programs such as Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) and Ask, Care Escort (ACE) Training touches every serving Soldier and is made available for families and DA Civilians. Chaplains, Chaplain Assistants and other health-care professionals are continuously engaged in an effort to educate, prevent and intervene with those who are struggling with suicidal ideation.
However, controversy follows the various efforts to understand and prevent the incalculable loss of human life through suicide. The debate over causes and effects leading to suicide, such as the belief that the contributing stress of combat and deployment as a contributing factor to the sharp rise in Military suicides, has been recently challenged by the Pentagon. Instead, mental illness seems to be a leading indicator of the cause-effect pattern in suicidal behaviors amongst Military personnel. Counterarguments against the Pentagon's recently released study is sure to revive the intuitive belief that war remains a contributing factor in the depression and despair afflicting many who have been exposed to the horrors of combat and killing.
This belief is grounded in the common understanding that all human life is valued, including that of our enemies. This value often stems from traditional beliefs that include religious definitions of what constitutes an individual human being. One such religious tenet of faith points to persons being "created in the image of God," suggesting that there is something implicitly sacred about life, and conversely, something profoundly profane about death, especially violent, premature death.
Many who have deployed into combat and have witnessed first-hand the violence and killing that characterizes war often return home with the uncomfortable realization that the value structure they once maintained, and perhaps called "normal," does not necessarily fit any longer. Re-inhabiting a way of life predating the horrors of combat can be especially difficult once a person has been exposed to the act of killing other human beings. No matter how noble the cause for combat, and there are such noble causes, such horror and trauma permanently impacts those who have a conscious sensitivity about other human beings. How persons survive such readjustments and changes to their own personal world views presents one of the challenges to reclaiming any sense of "normal." One means of such reclamation is through spirituality and the practice of spiritual disciplines.
Studies suggest that persons who have a religious faith or hope that transcends the personal dark moments characterizing intense psychological pain and despair ("psych-ache") are better equipped to move beyond those windows of time that might otherwise frame suicidal ideation and subsequent suicidal attempts.
Targeting well-being, happiness, a sense of purpose and hope, these studies overwhelmingly support the existence of coping mechanisms that contribute to better mental health and resiliency for those who maintain and practice their faith.
A recent survey of such studies published by Harold G. Koenig is instructive to any who might question the value of spiritual fitness or resiliency as a component to wholeness and health. In his research, Religion, Spirituality, and Health: The Research and Clinical Implications (2012) he writes; "Those who are depressed, without hope, and with low self-esteem are at greater risk for committing suicide. At least 141 studies have now examined relationships between R/S (i.e. religion and spirituality) and the [sic] suicide variables." He points out that in the most rigorous of these studies; "80% reported less suicide, fewer suicide attempts, or more negative attitudes toward suicide among the more R/S."
Four religious variables emerge to suggest possible coping mechanisms for those who suffer depression and psych-ache. In their interviews of more than 37,000 persons in Europe and the U.S., Neelman and Lewis identified a) religious belief, b) attendance within a faith-based community, c) religious upbringing and d) religious or denominational affiliation as strengths for preventative and post-ventative approaches to stress, depression and suicidal ideation.
As an Army Chaplain this does not surprise me. Indeed, there are innumerable instances where Soldiers and family members have sought out religious counsel in times of incredible stress and darkness, finding relief from anxiety, purposelessness and despair to offset suicidal ideation. This has been the driving force behind "spiritual fitness" that comprises one of the five resiliency pillars in the Army's Comprehensive Resiliency Program. This is the rationale behind the National Bible Association's Military Bible and Spiritual Fitness Manual as well as the First Responder's Bible and Spiritual Fitness Manual which attempt to reinforce spiritual resiliency through narrative and teaching. These are but two examples that promote a spiritual resiliency that survives human trauma. The Bible offers numerous stories and tips on becoming spiritually resilient and suicide resistant.
Within the Bible there are seven instances of suicide, six in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament. Within the context of Psalm 88, the despair that surfaces concludes with the author's realization that his "only companion is darkness." If that were the final message of the Psalmist, incredible psyche-ache and despair would be the final witness to his story. The following Psalm opens with a surprising note of praise to the Living God whose "Mercies are forever!" and suggests that there is a dawning light after every dark night of the soul. Hope is alive in the place of despair.
In like manner, the Christian hope can be demonstrated through the dynamic of the 'crucified' which suggests that there is a purpose that transcends suffering and death, found in the resurrection to new life that speaks against the seeming finality of death. Faith in this context provides a means of "passing through" the dark valley of the shadow of death where even the strongest persons are subject to pain, anxiety and despair. Suicide is trumped by the Crucified. Hope in the love and goodness of a forgiving God brings us closer to normal. Our lives are reclaimed in the process, regardless of how painful, when we believe in a purpose that extends beyond our own finitude. This is an act of faith, an act that typifies all who claim a spiritual core to their being and existence.
This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we'll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.
If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.