Leadership News

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Michigan, Kansas lead Guard efforts to stop suicide

Editor's Note:  A critical leadership issue as well as leadership being used as part of the solution.

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy
National Guard Bureau

(1/13/10) -- The National Guard has taken many steps to reduce the number of suicides within its ranks and has instituted a number of programs aimed at both building resiliency among its members and ensuring that those who need help receive the care they need.

Many of those programs are built on framework that has already been established within the military. In Michigan, that concept was used for the Buddy to Buddy program.

“It’s an initiative that we came up with (when we) realized that the Army has been around for a long, long time and has an established a chain of command,” said Army Brig. Gen. James R. Anderson during the 2010 Suicide Prevention Conference held here Jan. 12

The program provides training on listening skills and warning signs to watch out for and allows squad leaders and others to look out for their Soldiers.

“Soldiers take care of Soldiers, it’s just the nature of the business,” said Anderson, who is the assistant adjutant general for the Michigan Army National Guard.

The goal, however, is not to train Soldiers as care providers.

“We’re not trying to turn our Soldiers into mental health providers,” said Anderson. “We’re trying to teach our Soldiers some listening skills and communication skills to elicit from that other Soldier and possibly steer them in that right direction.”

For those who have served overseas, the deployment experience can form strong bonds among unit members.

However, unlike those in the active component who return from overseas and largely still have that unit and those bonds in place, returning Guard members may only see their fellow unit members at monthly drills.

“They come home and we do a wonderful job of welcoming Soldiers home … our communities love our Soldiers,” said Anderson. “They come home and then they go back to these counties, and there is no longer the close knit group of people. They’re out there on their own. That’s tough.”

The Buddy to Buddy program is an attempt to bridge that gap.

“The buddy to buddy program is an effort to keep people in contact with one another,” said Anderson. “To keep that squad leader and that platoon sergeant and that unit talking to one another and supporting one another, keeping connected and reducing the stigma (of possibly needing help).

“Your buddy is going to know you better than anybody else, he’s been with you to war and he understands the issues that you may or may not have.”

The importance of understanding the experiences of serving in a combat zone is something that has been brought up by many veterans.

Dr. John Greden of the University of Michigan Depression Center, who has worked with the Michigan Guard in building its programs, said that point was brought home while working with a returning veteran.

“He said if you haven’t been there, you don’t’ get it,” said Greden. “I think it hit me. I haven’t been there. And I think (talking with) another veteran who has been there makes it O.K. to get help.”

In addition to the Buddy to Buddy program, the Michigan Guard has also instituted the Road to Re-integration program, which brings Soldiers and their families together at the 45, 60 and 90 day points after returning from a deployment.

The goals of the program are much the same as the Buddy to Buddy, but provide Soldiers with access to mental health providers and other professional care outlets.

Similar programs have been instituted by other states, and the program has come a long way since its debut.

“It’s an awesome experience,” said Anderson about the program. “But, we’ve learned it the hard way. The rule was, initially, don’t touch them for 90 days. We learned that was a terrible, terrible thing to impose on our Soldiers.”

That point was brought home when Soldiers from an infantry unit got together after 90 days apart.

“When those Soldiers got back together it was just so, so emotional,” said Anderson. “They just wanted to be with one another.”

The Road to Re-integration program in Michigan has seen an increase in the numbers of those who attend.

“In 2005, we had 22 percent of our Soldiers attending these weekends,” said Anderson. “In 2009, 93 percent were attending with their families.”

As with many things, early detection and treatment is one of the keys to success.

Mental health is no different, and the Kansas National Guard’s Flash Forward program is designed to ensure those deploying receive training on the warning signs of suicide and depression prior to going overseas.

“It’s a seven hour plug-and-play training program,” said Army Maj. Paul Gonzalez of the Kansas Army Guard. “We developed it that way so if you want to talk about leadership we can do that, if you want to talk about spirituality we can do that. It’s more plug and play rather than just taking it from the very beginning to an end state.”

The program covers the five components of resiliency training -- social, emotional, physical, spiritual and family. “It’s all intertwined,” Gonzalez said. “Family may be a little bit of social, so we’re trying to intertwine it all together.”

One of the pieces of the program includes Web-based, interactive training modules that allow servicemembers to build on the skills they have learned in previous training block. The training culminates in an online interaction with instructors, who may or may not manifest symptoms indicating depression or other mental health needs.

Feedback is given during the interaction and allows the servicemember to track his or her progress.

“As you’re interacting with this individual he gives you his trust factor,” said Gonzalez. “Does he like what you’re talking to him about? Are your objectives being met? If you do not meet your objectives when you are done, he pushes you back after your AAR and retrains the Soldier or the Airman.”

The Kansas Guard has also been following the active Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program.

“We’re trying to take that program and see what fits for us,” Gonzalez said. “We are a little bit different, we only drill 39 days a year, and we don’t have a lot of time that the active component does. So we’re trying to build something that works for us when we’re building our resiliency training program.”

In the end, that’s what it comes down to, said Anderson.

“Less than one percent of the population chooses to wear the uniform,” said Anderson. “We have a commitment to provide them with what they need so that their life is fulfilling and their reintegration back to being a citizen is successful.”

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