Chaplains fighting suicide

Stories
06/18/2014

Chaplains fighting suicide
The spiritual counsel of military chaplains is critical; because they are close to the troops, they can build relationships that make it easier to talk about and work with concerns like suicide.

By Charles Austin

The people these pastors serve are under great stress, usually far from home, separated from family and loved ones, often facing grave physical danger. Many live in a culture where people are reluctant to share emotional problems or show signs of weakness.

They are our soldiers and veterans.

In recent years, the ELCA’s military chaplains and others working with members of the armed forces have had to deal with an unusual number of suicides. Though the overall number of military suicides has been low in comparison with statistics for civilians, the fact that the rate has been rising has become a concern.

Reports given to the U.S. Army suggest that suicides among those who were in Iraq and Afghanistan during the periods of the most serious combat have risen and some statistics show a growing number of suicides among veterans.

An Army study produced several papers published in The Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry. Those studies showed that while suicide rates for soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan more than doubled from 2004 to 2009, the suicide rate among those who were never deployed nearly tripled.

Training to recognize signs and prevent suicide

“The fact that we have been at war for 12 years and that some personnel have had multiple deployments has had an effect,” said John Swanson, an ELCA pastor who has been a U.S. Coast Guard chaplain for the past 24 years. So chaplains and other military personnel are being trained in how to recognize the signs that someone is considering suicide and how to properly raise the concern with that person or others.

John, who has been deployed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and has served in Japan, said most people have thought of suicide, but the critical issue is recognizing who is close to acting on their thoughts. John and other Coast Guard chaplains have used a program called “Assist” that trains troops to look for things people might say or changes in behaviors or their personal life that might be indicators of suicidal thoughts. “It is well-documented that people send out conscious or unconscious signals (about suicide),” John said.

Erik Feig, pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in La Crosse, Wis., has had three deployments as an Army Reserve chaplain, one in Kosovo and two in Iraq, so he knows first-hand the stress of war.

Erik said chaplains are helping all the armed services implement suicide prevention programs. “At one time,” he said, “drawing attention to any potential mental health problem could be detrimental to your career, but no more.” Chaplains, because they are close to the troops, can build relationships that make it easier for them and the personnel in their units to share such concerns, he said. “They may look at me differently” and be more likely to talk to a chaplain than to their commanding officer, he said.

Erik’s wife, Stacey, is also involved in the program as director for psychological health in a regional support command for the Army Reserves, based at Camp McCoy, Wis. “We know that all soldiers who have experienced combat face some kind of stress,” she said. Troops in every unit and all commanders are taught what to do if they see signs that a buddy might be suicidal. When deployed, Stacey said, Army Reserve units “become families,” so a suicide in the unit is a family matter. Furthermore, when the unit is scattered after returning home, troops can feel isolated and fail to seek help. Her work involves helping reservists connect with local resources that can provide necessary aid.

Emotional problems, Stacey said, can be especially difficult for reservists because they do not live on a base with other military personnel when they return from their active duty.

Continuing care during and after military service

While suicide prevention programs are now mandated throughout active-duty units of every uniformed service, Jerry Weyrauch, a retired Navy officer and founder of the Lutheran Suicide Prevention Ministry, hopes that military chaplains now trained in suicide prevention can help others when they retire or leave the armed services.

Lutheran Suicide Prevention Ministry was founded four years ago to increase suicide prevention awareness among members of Lutheran congregations. It was a way of taking action on the goals of the ELCA social message on suicide prevention adopted by the ELCA Church Council in 1999.

Working at suicide awareness and prevention is a very personal matter and an important commitment for Jerry and his wife, Elsie — they lost their daughter, a physician, when she committed suicide at the age of 34. The vision and hope of Lutheran Suicide Prevention Ministry based in Marietta, Ga., is that every synod will develop a suicide prevention program to serve their congregations, members and communities.

Military chaplains like John and Erik, Jerry said, can take their training into civilian life. “Chaplains,” he said, “can work with congregations when they retire and, because they know about life in the service, can be especially useful to veterans.”

We’re seeing positive results

For those in the military service, the programs are effective, says John. He says programs like the “Assist” workshops make the troops “more resilient” and active with regard to potentially suicidal thoughts or impulses. Surveys taken among the troops show that before the training workshops, fewer than half felt they could deal with a buddy feeling suicidal. After the “Assist” workshops, 90 to 100 percent said they feel prepared to intervene in such a situation.

It is the focus on everyone’s involvement in the suicide prevention programs that will help keep the programs effective, says Stacey. “We are,” she said “working hard at the highest levels of commands to reduce the stigma about seeking help.”

The spiritual counsel of chaplains is critical, said John, “If it is clear that someone is thinking about suicide,” he said, “we offer reasons to live, and help them listen to the reasons for living.”


Charles Austin is a retired ELCA pastor who has served parishes in Iowa, New York and New Jersey. He has also been a reporter for The New York Times and other news organizations.

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