A Navy Command Tries Radical Transparency to Help Prevent the Next Suicide

Sailors participate in a "Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month" walk.
Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln participate in an “Out of the Darkness Walk,” to recognize Suicide Prevention Awareness Month at Huntington Hall in Newport News, Va., Sept. 10, 2015. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Rob Ferrone)

As the Navy continues to struggle with suicide and getting its sailors to seek help from mental health services, some commands are turning to new, unconventional tools.

At Naval Station Mayport, Florida, a commander didn't want his unit -- a regional maintenance center very similar to the one in Norfolk, Virginia, that recently experienced a string of suicides -- to become the next headline. What resulted was a proactive forum built on transparency that reportedly got rave reviews from sailors and may have sparked a trend at the small base.

Historically, the Navy's approach to suicide prevention has been largely reactive. While resources are available all the time, their existence is often discussed only following the death of sailors.

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In early December, it became known that the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center had suffered four suicides in over a month. That type of maintenance center is unique in the Navy because many of its sailors are not on permanent assignment.

A Navy spokeswoman told Military.com in December that up to half of the sailors assigned to the Norfolk facility could be on humanitarian orders, pregnancy or postpartum status, or limited duty.

After the deaths, the commanding officer of the Southeast Regional Maintenance Center, a command that largely mirrors the troubled center in Norfolk, approached Amie Mckague, the director of the Fleet and Family Support Center at Mayport, about putting on a training for his sailors.

While Mckague was eager to tell sailors about what resources were available, "we did not want the canned brief," she told Military.com in an interview last week. Instead, the command put a representative from Navy medical, a chaplain, and someone from Fleet and Family up on a stage and let sailors ask the panel questions anonymously. The message: Here are all the different ways you can seek help.

"What are your thoughts about what is good about the Navy and what's not the best? ... What are your needs?" Mckague said, recalling some of the questions asked.

That kind of openness to discussing the warts of service is unusual. But the tone was set by commanding officer Capt. Justin Dowd, who opened the session with anecdotes about his own family's struggles with mental health and suicide.

Military.com reached out to Dowd for more details about why he chose to share that family history with the sailors, but he declined an interview.

"There's more leaders that need to do that," Mckague said.

Dr. Rajeev Ramchand, an epidemiologist at the Rand Corp. think tank who specializes in suicide, agreed.

"I think, especially in the military, having senior leaders talk about their own experiences … that's really important," Ramchand told Military.com in a phone interview.

Ramchand explained that, while there are many programs throughout the military that make the claim of being there for service member welfare and suicide prevention, "those personal anecdotes show that it's not just lip service."

Mckague said that around 800 sailors from the Mayport maintenance center attended the two forums she helped put together, and many of them "said that was the best training that we've had" and "we've already had other ships right now that want that" same training.

Both Ramchand and the Navy's own research say that there is no shortage of demand for mental health services.

An investigation into the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier that has experienced at least nine suicides since November 2019, revealed that between January 2021 and January 2022, "there were an estimated 2,615 patient encounters" between the ship's four mental health providers -- a figure they described as "overwhelming."

One of the key issues the military has is service members knowing what is available to them.

The same George Washington report noted that a "Deployed Resiliency Counselor" was available to the crew but at a three-mile walk away from the ship. Since January 2021, that person had seen only 46 patients. "Multiple Sailors interviewed did not know who the DRC was, what the DRC offered, or where the DRC was located," the report added.

Mckague said that after the forums she saw "some parking lot conversations with folks. … 'While you're here, can I just talk with you?'"

The director hopes that the "ripple effects" from the forums continue to generate interest for help both from Navy leaders and sailors.

"We're growing," Mckague said, noting that "there's other commands … that want that forum."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: What the Deaths of Sailors Who Took Their Own Lives Aboard the George Washington Reveal About the Navy

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