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Military Women and Suicide Awareness: Is Something Missing?

This month is National Suicide Prevention Month. I don’t think that anyone reading this needs a primer on suicide. It has probably touched all of our lives in one way or another, either directly or indirectly, whether personally (either ourselves or a loved one), or through the holes left behind when someone falls into circumstances that can lead to ending one’s own life. We are all, in some way, painfully familiar with suicide.

What we may not all be familiar with is the way that suicide is impacting our servicemembers. We may not know that suicide is claiming them, in many cases, faster than direct combat or Improvised Explosive Devices (IED).

Even with 900 prevention programs spread over 400 military installations worldwide, it seems that the military still isn’t doing enough to prevent suicide among servicemembers. A task force investigating the military’s efforts reports that they have been reactive rather than proactive, allowing men and women to slip through the holes in the safety nets. And while, as expected, many suicide victims are men who faced front line combat, female servicemembers are now killing themselves at a much higher rate than in the past.

In January, I wrote that the VA had released numbers from a study done on the increased suicide rate for male soldiers aged 18 to 29, and how it had failed to include any information on the increase for female servicemembers. But we know that women are killing themselves, and that these missing numbers are just another way that the military and the VA are failing women veterans.

Changes in war fighting and women’s roles have put them in places where they are seeing dead bodies, handling remains, or watching someone they are close to get killed. They are being attacked by roadside bombers. Women servicemembers are also facing military sexual trauma — harassment, assault, or rape — at increased rates, sometimes at the hands of their own colleagues. Women may hesitate to come forward and seek help after traumatic events such as these, since they are already seen as “weak, whiny, hormonal, and incapable,” according to Brynne Moore, a member of the Army Reserve, who was advised by her commander to keep her own mental health issues quiet. In addition to the demand to prove they can keep up with the men, any mental health issue — a silent enemy that doesn’t discriminate — will be attributed to their innate female weakness.

But that isn’t to say that suicide prevention isn’t an important issue for the whole of the military. A single servicemember taking his or her own life is too many, and we just can’t say we are doing enough if this is continuing.

If you, or someone you know, is in need of someone to talk to, or are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Hotline. 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Press “1” for Veterans.

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