Helis: Army Must Do More to Combat Soldier Suicide

Helis: Army Must Do More to Combat Soldier Suicide

Photo by: U.S. Army/Spc. David N. Beckstrom

The Army can do more to help prevent suicides among soldiers, according to a senior leader, who said the service is about to begin a “deep dive” into the cause of suicides over the past two years among young active-duty soldiers.

While suicide prevention is “an item of top priority for the Army senior leadership … a lot of our programs are not well synchronized, and we have to do a better job of organizing ourselves to holistically address suicide prevention,” James Helis, director of the Army Resilience Directorate, said Sept. 21 during a Thought Leaders webinar hosted by the Association of the U.S. Army.

The Army’s People First Task Force, which was stood up in December in the wake of the Fort Hood Independent Review, has begun developing models and tools for holistic prevention of harmful behaviors such as sexual assault, sexual harassment and substance abuse. 

These programs can help bring leaders closer to their soldiers and build the kind of trust that’s needed to have difficult conversations and get people the help they need before it’s a crisis, Helis said.

The majority of suicide deaths in the Army involve active-duty male soldiers in the rank of staff sergeant and below who are in combat arms MOSs and have access to the privately owned weapons used in the majority of suicides, Helis said.

“We're trying to look at some sources, such as financial counseling, relationship counseling, parenting skills, substance abuse counseling, so that the challenges that are reaching a crisis point when a soldier dies by suicide are addressed early and taken care of before it turns into a crisis,” Helis said. “That's true prevention of suicide. It's looking at the problem holistically.”

The soldiers who die by suicide, he said, have “singularly or in combination” relationship problems, a work-related tangle or a legal issue involving the Uniform Code of Military Justice, financial troubles or behavioral health challenges.

Many young soldiers and young people experience problems with the common factors identified, Helis said, but “the vast majority of them do not turn to self-harm. While we understand the who and some of the what, we don't yet understand the why.”

While the Army trains soldiers to watch for signs in their buddies to help prevent suicide, provides behavioral health professionals at the unit level and is hoping to gain a deeper understanding of “why” some soldiers take their own lives, Helis cautioned that suicide is nevertheless “a complex problem” with no simple solution.

“We’re not where we want to be yet, but we are moving in the right direction,” Helis said.