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September marks National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. The statistics are sobering.  

According to the CDC, 12 million Americans have reported seriously considering suicide, 3.5 million have made a suicide plan, and 1.4 million have attempted death by suicide. Within the military community, suicide rates remain a pressing concern. Prevention programs provided by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) offer a range of support services to Service members and veterans struggling with suicidal thoughts and ideation. In this post, we focus on the unique value that military chaplains bring to suicide prevention efforts. 

In most local communities, the work of clergy has traditionally been thought of as limited to faith-based organizations, like churches. However, clergy who are active in military settings provide a much more diverse range of services. Military chaplains are specially trained to support Service members across faith traditions, including in ways that can tangibly mitigate suicide risk. Here, we discuss two such examples. First, military chaplains help to facilitate religious and spiritual practices for Service members, oftentimes under challenging circumstances. Second, military chaplains also serve as a source of confidential first-line support for Service members who might be struggling.

Providing Religious and Spiritual Leadership  

For some Service members, the ability to engage in religious and spiritual practices can serve as a powerful source of support in the face of trauma or difficult life circumstances. We found that maladaptive religious coping was associated with increased suicide risk in a sample of recently returned Veterans.  

In a separate study, we determined that certain religious and spiritual practices were also important markers of resilience. For example, a form of focused scripture reading known as Lectio Divina has shown promise for decreasing spiritual or moral injury, recognized as a risk factor for suicide. By its very nature, military service exposes individuals to stressors frequently far removed from civilian settings. Ensuring access to religious and spiritual resources underscores the importance of building resilience among Service members. 

Confidential, First-Line Support Systems

Communications with a military chaplain—including conversations that may be suicide-related—are kept confidential. Chaplains are often the first line of support and serve as a safe harbor for struggling service members. Military chaplains are trained to recognize suicide risk factors and can facilitate referrals to clinical and non-clinical supportive services. Chaplains also play a crucial role in combating the stigma that is sometimes associated with mental health services and can also help de-escalate a Service member in crisis.  

It is important that Service members are aware of the support programs and options that are available to them and their families to protect, promote, and enhance their mental wellness. This includes, but is not limited to, chaplaincy services. The FMG team continues to explore ways to enhance existing support options, provide support to Service members who need it most, when it is most needed, and destigmatize mental health services.    

For more than six years, FMG has supported the DoD in its suicide prevention efforts by conducting analyses to uncover new relationships linking certain variables with suicidal behavior, reporting on effective messaging for the prevention of suicide by firearm, and more recently, developing the DoD’s Annual Suicide Report. Collectively, these studies inform ongoing efforts to provide holistic support to Service members who might be at increased risk of suicide.  

We remain acutely aware that people are not pieces of data. Behind every number we analyze is a person who may be hurting and in need of support. If you or someone close to you is struggling, know that there is hope. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1 if a Veteran or Service member). You will be connected with a specially trained counselor from the Department of Veterans Affairs who will help you get the assistance you need.  

 

References 

Bryan, A. O., Bryan, C. J., Morrow, C. E., Etienne, N., & Ray-Sannerud, B. (2014). Moral injury, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts in a military sample. Traumatology, 20(3), 154–160. https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fh0099852 

Kopacz, M. S., Crean, H. F., L Park, C., & Hoff, R. A. (2017). Religious Coping and Suicide Risk in a Sample of Recently Returned Veterans. Archives of suicide research: official journal of the International Academy for Suicide Research, 22(4), 615–627. https://doi.org/10.1080/13811118.2017.1390513 

Kopacz, M. S., Adams, M. S., & Searle, R. F. (2017). Lectio Divina: A Preliminary Evaluation of a Chaplaincy Program. Journal of health care chaplaincy, 23(3), 87–97. https://doi.org/10.1080/08854726.2016.1253263 

About the author

Marek Kopacz and Laura Severance

Marek S. Kopacz, MD, PhD, is a researcher trained in medical sociology. He has 10 years of experience in government service, chiefly focused on suicide prevention research. He has published over 50 peer-reviewed publications examining the relationship between religion, spirituality, and suicidal behavior. His work has been used to inform enterprise-wide initiatives for enhancing chaplaincy services provided at Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers as well as by military chaplains.

 

Laura Severance, PhD, oversees work on suicide, sexual assault, and counterproductive behavior among Service members. She has a background in gender dynamics in organizations, military recruiting, cross-cultural issues, and negotiation. She has a PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Maryland and a BA from Bryn Mawr College. 

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