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Community-Based Approach Necessary to Preventing Suicides Among Military Families

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The well-being of our servicemen and women--and their families--is a concern not only for the military, but for civilian society as well. Supporting those who have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as they transition into our workplaces and neighborhoods is our duty as Americans, makes our communities stronger, and builds a solid foundation for our ability to face future challenges as one nation.

That's why recent reports on poor mental health outcomes and thoughts of suicide among military family members are extremely troubling. And with Congress now considering a bill that would track these deaths among military families, both the public and private sectors should be alerted to the needs of military children and spouses and ready to provide support.

The 2013 Military Family Lifestyle Survey Report from Blue Star Families, for example, showed that 9 percent of military spouses say they have considered suicide. And we know from the California Healthy Kids Survey, which has included data on both military and non-military students since 2011, that adolescents with either a parent or a sibling in the military are at a higher risk of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts. Recent findings appearing in the Journal of Adolescent Health show that a quarter of ninth- and 11th-grade students with a military parent or sibling thought about ending their lives (compared with 19 percent of civilian youth), according to a survey given to 14,000 California students.

In face of these ominous signs, it is very disturbing that the Defense Suicide Prevention Office concluded that the Department of Defense (DOD) does not currently have the capability to track or investigate suicide deaths among military dependents and that this limitation keeps the office from assessing "the full scope of the suicide problem among military family members." Their report, "Suicide and Military Families: A Report to Congress on the Feasibility of Tracking Deaths by Suicide among Military Family Members," outlines plans to collect National Death Index data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and spells out the costs associated with such a tracking system. "Preventing Psychological Disorders in Service Members and Their Families: An Assessment of Programs," a recent report from the Institute of Medicine, is further evidence that many academicians and officials assume only the DOD and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) can address the "readjustment" needs of veterans' and service members' families and that services must mainly be delivered in clinical settings.

But the error in the DOD and IOM proposals is the narrow-minded position that it is solely the responsibility of the DOD to monitor anything that has to do with active duty service members, and for that matter, the VA when it comes to veterans. If we truly care about the successful reintegration of our military members into civilian society and the health of their families, the DOD and the VA should be partnering with school systems, community organizations, businesses and local governments to implement suicide prevention and other mental health services in all communities and schools that serve military and veteran families.

It is essential to know where these families live so that they can be welcomed and provided necessary services in civilian communities. Adding an optional question on whether or not someone is serving or has served in the military on the variety of forms and applications that adults complete in their daily lives is a simple and inexpensive step toward identifying the current and former military families among us. California school districts did not pay anything extra to ask students on the California Healthy Kids Survey whether they have a parent or sibling in the military. Yet this information has yielded a wealth of information estimating how many such families and children live in California (surprisingly more than we estimated in the past), the communities where they reside, the schools they attend and how military-connected students are faring academically, socially and emotionally in those schools. This easily collected information is most helpful in designing intervention and support services for public school systems with students facing the challenges of school transition and parental deployment.

In another example, the Los Angeles Unified School District has become the first large urban school district to add a question on its Student Emergency Information Form asking whether a parent is on active duty, a veteran or a member of the National Guard or reserves. The form also asks in which branch the parent serves and whether he or she is currently deployed. Asking for this information not only raises awareness of military students and families among educators in the second largest school district in the country, but it also serves as an example to other large school districts--and public sector agencies--in the nation.

Our universities should also be educating future teachers, administrators and pupil personnel on the challenges facing children of military members and veterans. Those who serve our country, along with their families, should be recognized as a diversity group and programs seeking to support and serve these families should receive priority in applying for federal grants. This was the intent of President Obama's 2011 directive to federal agencies to "reform, strengthen and better coordinate" efforts to support military families, veterans and survivors of the fallen. Yet, it seems that this effort has fizzled, and without a mandate from Congress, federal agencies will continue to operate in silos and the needs of these families will go unmet.

Currently one of the best federal examples of a school/community-based approach to supporting military families is the Department of Defense Education Activity's partnership program, which provides funds to educate and support civilian school districts serving military-connected students. Programs for civilian schools sponsored by the Military Child Education Coalition have also increased training and provide resources to public schools serving military children. Why hasn't the VA partnered with these two successful entities to create a similar programs to connect with schools serving the children of veterans? Why are children whose parents have just returned from combat excluded from services the moment their parents enter civilian life? It is blatantly unfair and unwise for our society not to support these veterans' children for several years as they transition into civilian life.

Federal officials might be talking about reintegration, but they're ignoring the role of civilian society in being part of the healing process. Banks, schools, religious institutions, recreation programs, libraries, child-care centers and other civilian community organizations can all contribute to making sure the lives of military and veteran families are full and rewarding.

After 12 years of war, our national policy and national mindset should move toward creating welcoming and supportive civilian communities that will be there for the long run.