With a growing number of troops reported to have taken their own lives while in battle, it has been reported that the Pentagon and the White House are now acknowledging service members who committed suicide during combat the same way as other combat related deaths. Dr. Renee Clauselle, Founder, Family Wellness Center, says the change may help to take away the stigma associated with suicide. She also says that family members who have learned that their loved ones committed suicide while serving in combat may also need to seek psychological counseling to deal with the unexpected loss.
As reported by major media outlets, including National Public Radio, both the Pentagon and the White House recently announced that they will now send letters of condolence to families of troops who commit suicide in a combat zone. This changes a longstanding policy of how top U.S. leaders recognize those who died while serving the country. Until now, neither the president nor the secretary of defense wrote condolence letters to families of troops who committed suicide; that was done by military officers and secretaries.
This policy change recognizes the stress on the troops in combat situations, with a focus on removing the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Many troops have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as the result of serving repeated tours of duty in different countries. According to the Pentagon, nearly 300 active-duty service members committed suicide last year.
The Family Wellness Center specializes in working with military families. If you, or someone you know, has lost a loved one to suicide during or following their military service, there is help. The grief one experience’s after a loved one’s suicide can trigger very complicated emotions, such as guilt, anger and blame.
Below are some suggestions to ease this painful experience:
• Reach out to your support network, such as family, friends and community leaders, particularly those who are empathic, warm and understanding as you go through this experience. Many Veterans Affairs organizations have support group and bereavement counselors who specialize in offering counsel to the families of military professionals.
• Allow yourself time to grieve. Grieving is a highly individual process—there is no timeline or guideline. Grieving may feel intolerance, but understand that it is a healing process. Let your healing occur at a pace that is right for you, and engage in activities that feel right for you, regardless of what other’s feel is best. Also, acknowledge that some days will be harder than others, specifically anniversaries, birthdays and holidays.
• Acknowledge your grief and understand that it is normal. Many people need to progress through denial, anger, blame and sadness before reaching acceptance. Understand that not all people progress through the stages of grief in this order, and some stages may not be experienced at all.
• While it is important to tend to existing responsibilities, it is more important to give yourself the rest and care that you need, as grief is an emotional journey. If you throw yourself into work and normalcy as a distraction, this may result in unprocessed emotions later on down the line. For similar reasons, avoid drugs and alcohol during this emotional time.
• Develop rituals to honor your loved one. Following a suicide, families may feel shocked that their loved one chose to die and treat the death differently. It’s especially important to remind oneself that they died in honor and their death, although voluntary, was still the death of a courageous and admirable person.
• If helpful to you, get involved in organizations that advocate for military serviceperson mental health screening and treatment. Following death, we often feel helpless and lost. Applying your time and energy to a cause that is dear to your heart can help others as well as help yourself.
• Don’t hesitate to seek counseling services from a licensed mental health professional. Bereavement is a personal experience and it is important to have an unbiased outlet and support during this time.
Having a loved one serve our country overseas is an experience that affects an entire family. As recent legislation hopes to increase the mental health support for troops overseas, it is also imperative that families are able to locate support services for themselves as well. Child & Family Psychology will address mental health concerns such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, fear and family-related stress.
It is wonderful to see the White House and Pentagon recognize those soldiers who have taken their own lives while in combat in trying to remove the stigma associated with suicide. The constant redeployments and extended stays away from home take a mental and emotional toll on them. While their families back home realize the constant danger their loved one is in, they would never expect their loved one to commit suicide. Those who experience grief and shock upon learning of this news may need to seek psychological help as a result of their loss.