Why Threaten Military Family Suicide?

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(Trevor Cokley/DVIDS)

They threaten that a “storm” of suicide among military family members is coming. They say that family suicide will spread “like an airborne disease.” They say that the “grapevine” is full of family members who got so overburdened that they committed suicide.

But there aren’t any statistics to back that up. No agency tracks suicides among military family members. Even though the rate of suicide among military members themselves set records last year, that number is still slightly below the national average.

Even one suicide is intolerable. So it is worrisome that a recent NBC News article indicates we are supposed to be expecting more, not less, suicide among military family members as the troops return. Kristina Kaufmann, executive director of the nonprofit Code of Support, told NBC news:

“When you know that you are the anchor — and if you go down, the family’s going down — the problem is that you can only do that for so long,” said Kaufmann. “That population (of spouses) is at the most risk. Because the storm is going to happen when everybody comes home. That’s where we are, unfortunately, going to see an uptick in lots of negative outcomes, including suicide, including suicide among the spouses.”

That’s scary stuff. Every military spouse I know is the anchor for her family. (So I know a lot of deployment-weary women and a few exhaustified men.)

Yet suggesting that the role as an “anchor” is too much for family members goes against what we actually know about suicide. That role as an anchor may be exactly what keeps people going even in the face of combat loss.

One of the most well-regarded theories about why people commit suicide comes from Clinical Psychologist Thomas Joiner. Joiner found that that an individual will not die by suicide unless he or she has both the desire to die by suicide and the ability to do so. (Please note: Military members and family members can always call the Military Crisis Line day or night. They offer crisis intervention by text (838255) as well as by phone (1-800-273-8255) or online chat. These guys have an amazing ability to help you find the help you need.)

According to Joiner, the desire for suicide is created by two factors working on each other all the time. A person has to perceive themselves as a burden to others and they also have to feel alienated from others, not an integral part of a family, circle of friends, or other valued group. (Read more about Joiner's Model here.)

Anchors, by definition, are not a burden. Anchors are an essential part of a family at the very least. And nowhere does it say that anchors have to be perfect at their job all the time. Being an anchor is not the problem. Feeling like a burden or feeling alienated are the problems.

We help each other with that. Instead of scaring ourselves with some theoretical approaching "storm," we need to use what we know about military family life and the risk of suicide. Including each other, reaching out to the new and the young, extending encouragement to every anchor we see are all things our community has done in the past. And now we have an idea that they might be the clue to our future.

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