THE BLOG
07/06/2010 10:25 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Soldiering Against Suicide

Hamlet feared it, calling it "the undiscovered country."

Amos Oz, whose mother took her life, referred to it as "a master of stratagems, a magic piper who draws the desperate and lonely into the folds of his silken cloak. The ancient serial killer of disappointed souls."

The late Edwin Shneidman, one of the country's deans of suicidology, said that what prompts it are the "thwarted needs" from a "vandalized childhood."

Suicide has been with us since the dawn of civilization. In our own time, baby boomers have been taking their lives in higher percentages than before. Due to the BP oil spill and other underlying factors, a mental health crisis has arisen in the Gulf Coast where an Alabama charter boat captain recently committed suicide. And as I wrote earlier this year, there has been a spate of suicides on college campuses, many of them top-tier schools like Cornell, Columbia and NYU, where the students no doubt felt a compelling need to achieve.

Suicide is the third highest cause of death among 15-24 year olds, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. But for all the talk about suicides among students, another group often gets neglected, and that's the men and women in our armed forces.

A Hartford Courant special report from 2006 showed that some soldiers with known psychiatric problems such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder were being sent off to combat, sometimes for a second or third tour, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That policy came under Congressional scrutiny following the Courant series, which led a Defense Dept. task force in 2007 to recommend, as reported by the Courant, "an annual mental-health check-up for all troops" and "face-to-face" screenings for troops returning from war, as well as funding for more "fully trained" mental-health professionals to aid the soldiers.

Suicides among troops have still increased in the past few years.

According to a recent AP story, 245 soldiers took their lives in 2009, an increase of nearly 20 percent from 2008 when 197 soldiers died at their own hand. As of May of this year, there were only three fewer suicides than in the same period the year before, this in spite of the fact that the Army initiated a program at the end of 2008 to teach soldiers how to detect early warning signs that one of their colleagues may be suicidal.

That is not to say that the suicide-prevention campaign has not yielded positive results.

The AP revealed that Army Spc. Albert Godding removed the firing pin from the rifle of his friend, Spc. Joseph Sanders, because he sensed that Sanders was suicidal. Sanders was going through a divorce and dealing with the rigors of combat in Iraq.

As it turned out, Sanders did pull the trigger on himself, but the gun did not fire, thanks to Godding's action, which earned him the Meritorious Service Medal.

The men and women in our armed forces are facing stresses that few of us can imagine at a time when we are all living a 24/7 lifestyle, something our ancestors, hunters and gatherers, never experienced. As I noted in a previous post, our biology is at war with our culture, a point made by Peter Whybrow in his book, American Mania. We are not used to being surfeited with Blackberries, fast food, text-messages and plane travel, all of which wreak havoc with our brains and our bodies.

Needless to say, our ancestors also did not have to deal with improvised explosive devices, mines, multiple tours of duty and other aspects of modern warfare.

It is no wonder that soldiers and civilians alike are breaking down.

The new army program to teach awareness about suicide and post-traumatic stress is a welcome development. It allows soldiers and their buddies to come forward when they are deeply depressed, psychotic or suicidal. And it helps to erase the stigma associated with mental illness.

Our troops should not feel that they are weak, nor should men in the military feel that their masculinity is compromised, if they feel suicidal. It takes strength, not weakness, to admit that you need help.

Hopefully, like Hamlet, we can all recognize that there is no knowing what looms if we take our lives. The ominous prospect of "the undiscovered country" convinced the Prince of Denmark to remain alive; as he said, it "puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of."

Some try to glamorize suicide, but there is nothing romantic about suicide. It has repercussions that can last for generations within a family, and as Hamlet said, it's a place from which "no traveler returns."