Although I agree with Susan Crosson that additional mental health resources can and should be brought to bear on the somber surge of suicides in the military, especially in Alaska, any increase will realistically reflect both “promise” and “curse.” Mental health clinics — or some form of mental health services — are already available on most military installations. If the primary problem is, in fact, one of “demand” far exceeding “supply” — as increasing reports of military members waiting months for a mental health appointment would indicate — then, yes, that “intel” suggests a lack of resources is at the heart of the surge.
However, my experiences throughout more than 20 years as an Air Force chaplain — I retired as JBER’s senior chaplain in 2013 — have convinced me that unless the stigma and often unnecessary risk to one’s military career inherent in simply visiting a mental health clinic are further reduced, too many military members will not begin to seek the help they need. While there can be more anonymity counseling with a chaplain unless that chaplain’s office is “too visible” in the unit or next door to a commander or senior NCO’s office, it is true that not every chaplain will “positively connect” with everyone he or she counsels.
Not all chaplains, for example, are as skilled in counseling or as “neutral” with respect to religious beliefs as others may be, but if at first one doesn’t succeed in establishing a trusted relationship with a chaplain, I encourage seekers to try, try again.
Regardless of the variety or amount of resources made available to military members, what remains the greatest challenge to reducing military suicides is that which is both the most intangible and the most resistant to change, namely, an underlying military culture that views seeking help — especially for the often intangible, invisible reality of mental illness — as an unacceptable weakness, with counseling viewed as a path leading not to health and wholeness but to discharge from the military and abandonment.
And while there is no easy way to institute this “culture change,” it should, as in most other American arenas, fall primarily on leaders at all levels to lead by example, that is, by modeling integrity, service before self and excellence in all that leader’s organization is called upon to do, all actions that can and should be exercised with an underpinning of empathy.
— Chaplain, Lt. Col Keith Muschinske, USAF, retired
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