07/20/2012 08:54 pm ET | Updated Sep 19, 2012

Military Suicide, Emotional Anguish and Healing

In a recent study, the most frequent reason soldiers gave for attempting suicide was ... intense emotional pain. This has profound implications and, at the same time, it's the kind of thing that gives psychological research a bad name. I can understand somebody responding: "And mountains are tall and fire is hot; tell me something I didn't know." Or: "Did we need to spend $50,000,000 to find that out?" So psychological researchers are rediscovering that emotional anguish matters. And, along with the desperate sense of futility to alter it, that it contributes mightily to the decision to take one's own life. Better late than never.

Dr. Carl Castro, an accomplished and dedicated Army researcher, infers from this data that people who try to commit suicide don't really want to harm themselves; rather, he surmises, they want the pain to stop and don't see any other way out. He supports new therapies being developed that focus on developing skills for "quelling" the emotional pain, rather than dealing with the "underlying issues" such as depression or post-traumatic stress.

I have been teaching meditation, one of these skills, for thirty years. Over the past five years, hundreds at Coming Home Project retreats have learned to relax and better modulate (not "quell") strong emotions using meditation, qigong (an ancient energy and movement practice), or yoga. With all respect to Dr. Castro, I disagree that this skills training needs to come before addressing the "underlying" concerns."

Our experience has taught us that a multi-modal approach that integrates resilience practices with small peer support groups, expressive arts, vigorous recreation in the great outdoors and secular ritual works quite well. The X factor, the glue that binds these elements together, is an atmosphere that is warm, non-judgmental, unconditionally welcoming and compassionate, and truly safe. Bound together with unconditional love, each of these elements then complements and adds value to the others. This approach gives people options; a few will connect with all of them but most connect with one or two. Think about it: people have been using these five modalities (under different names) since time immemorial to transform unbearable trauma. We just have to mobilize them.

Each of these elements contribute to a healing process I call turning ghosts into ancestors. In this most human process, excruciatingly painful trauma-driven, warded off emotions can safely resurface and be re-experienced and re-encoded in a new, "corrective" environment, transforming them from haunting, destabilizing intrusions into memories. Learning wellness practices that help us modulate intense affect, sharing the supportive company of our fellow buddies, spouses and partners, parents and grandparents, children and teens, using expressive arts to represent what can't yet been spoken, feeling the loving embrace of something bigger than us all, the great outdoors -- all these contribute to this profound, natural transformation of trauma.

We need to our veterans and their families as whole people. We must stop, look and listen (and really see and hear) them, in order to find a way out of our linear, silver-bullet, quick-fix blinders.

I'll close with the words of a wise colleague and friend, Bonnie Carroll, that confirm our experience of the untapped potential of cultivating healing community:

What we learn from our families [who lost service family members to suicide] and what they saw in their loved ones, is behavior [in which they] pulled back and felt they were not able to be a useful part of unit that relied on them. These men and women need to know they are still a part of a unit at home and overseas.