Why Threaten Military Family Suicide?

Riders on the Storm

They threaten that a “storm” of suicide among military family members is coming.  They say that family suicide will spread “like an airborne disease.”  They say that the “grapevine” is full of family members who got so overburdened that they committed suicide.

But there aren’t any statistics to back that up. No agency tracks suicides among military family members.  Even though the rate of suicide among military members themselves set records last year, that number is still slightly below the national average.

Even one suicide is intolerable.  So it is worrisome that a recent NBC News article indicates we are supposed to be expecting more, not less, suicide among military family members as the troops return. Kristina Kaufmann, executive director of the nonprofit Code of Support, told NBC news:

“When you know that you are the anchor — and if you go down, the family’s going down — the problem is that you can only do that for so long,” said Kaufmann. “That population (of spouses) is at the most risk. Because the storm is going to happen when everybody comes home. That’s where we are, unfortunately, going to see an uptick in lots of negative outcomes, including suicide, including suicide among the spouses.”

That’s scary stuff.  Every military spouse I know is the anchor for her family.  (So I know a lot of deployment-weary women and a few exhaustified men.)

Yet suggesting that the role as an “anchor” is too much for family members goes against what we actually know about suicide.  That role as an anchor may be exactly what keeps people going even in the face of combat loss.

One of the most well-regarded theories about why people commit suicide comes from Clinical Psychologist Thomas Joiner.  Joiner found that that an individual will not die by suicide unless he or she has both the desire to die by suicide and the ability to do so.  (Please note:  military members and family members can always call the Military Crisis Line day or night. They offer crisis intervention by text (838255) as well as by phone (1-800-273-8255) or online chat.  These guys have an amazing ability to help you find the help you need.)

According to Joiner, the desire for suicide is created by two factors working on each other all the time.  A person has to perceive themselves as a burden to others and they also have to feel alienated from others, not an integral part of a family, circle of friends, or other valued group. (Read more about Joiner’s Model here).

Anchors, by definition, are not a burden.  Anchors are an essential part of a family at the very least.  And nowhere does it say that anchors have to be perfect at their job all the time.  Being an anchor is not the problem.  Feeling like a burden or feeling alienated are the problems.

We help each other with that. Instead of scaring ourselves with some theoretical approaching “storm,” we need to use what we know about military family life and the risk of suicide.  Including each other, reaching out to the new and the young, extending encouragement to every anchor we see are all things our community has done in the past.  And now we have an idea that they might be the clue to our future.










About the Author

Jacey Eckhart
Jacey Eckhart is the former Director of Spouse and Family Programs for Military.com. Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan?? Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times. Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom. Find her at JaceyEckhart.net.

29 Comments on "Why Threaten Military Family Suicide?"

  1. jacey_eckhart | January 29, 2013 at 9:39 am |

    People do care. And from everything I have read, you are not the only one who is frustrated with the system. The thing is, a solution is not as easy as waving a magic wand over you. I wish it was. I really, really wish it was. Because I don't want you or anyone to be in that kind of pain.

    So you have to commit to the process. There will be a lot of trial and error. The research shows that depression DOES respond to treatment over time. It's the "over time" part that is hard. If you aren't getting help from the sources you have tried before, look for another source. Call Military OneSource again. Call Tricare again. Go back to your doctor. Persist. And keep in touch. I want to know what you decide to do next

  2. I've been researching suicide and mental health among family members for a long time. and I realize we don't have the magic numbers. As Mrs. Mullen asked in 2010 – why? the complaint that they can't count us, or that HIPAA regs say they can't, or that it costs too much – is a large bunch of horse crap. the military is stretched, yeah we get that. and we are too. the days of pull up your big girl panties and stiff upper lip – didn't do much for us. In that story you quoted, you may have read of Kristy's three friends.. the tough ones who finally couldn't keep going. you call that storm "theoretical"… I'll call it what Mrs. Sheila Casey called it a couple of years ago – the tip of the iceberg. when you've heard the despair, and the exhaustion from the caregiver spouses that I hear; or seen that withdrawal from the world because they just can't keep the upper lip as stiff as everyone around them wants it – you understand that storm is right around the corner. Yes, we DO need to go off post, because the military mental health providers are swamped. I'd recommend Not Alone and Give an Hour, the vet centers sometimes have great social workers available.

    Putting our heads in the sand and saying we just need to buck up and pull up our socks – is not the answer. supporting each other, but realizing when we as friends cannot do it for you and when to get professional help, may stop this uncounted epidemic.

  3. I don't believe that we will see an epidemic of suicides when all is said and done. We are much stronger than we are given credit for in this news scenario. We adapt and we will find our new normal when all our servicemembers return. I truly believe that those who commit suicide would have done it regardless of their experience as a military spouse because that level of depression is an internal battle that rears it's ugly head regardless of what is happening on the outside. I would be more concerned with an increase in divorces since reintegration can be extremely difficult when you have spent more time alone than as a couple.

  4. Don’t forget about the caregivers to wounded warriors. While many may no longer consider us “military” we are. And in the last month we’ve lost 4 wives to suicide. Just because no agency is tracking it doesn’t mean that we aren’t…

  5. I don't read this as anyone threatening anyone or as anyone trying to paint military spouses with a broad brush. I read this as people who are concerned about military families and the impact of over a decade of war with a heavy Op Tempo. This lifestyle can put a strain on even the strongest of us.

    Mental Health for military family members is often overlooked. I think the only thing this article is trying to say is that it's time for people to pay attention and to prepare to support those who will struggle.

    It's also not a question of how people feel personally. My experience good or bad is not the litmus test for everyone else's experience. So saying, "They shouldn't say we're going to be suicidal, because I'm not suicidal" ignores the fact that another military spouse may very well be suicidal.

    And while I understand the logic you've used here, I can easily see why someone who has had to be an 'anchor' for countless deployments would feel hopeless, helpless, and depressed at the realization that their the physical and emotional toll of war leaves you as still being the anchor, but this time as a caretaker. That sounds like an incredibly overwhelming thing to me and people break and feel like they have no way out even if they have responsibilities to many other people. I think this article hi-lighted that by talking about Ms. Kaufman's friend who was the picture of the perfect army wife, always volunteering, smiling, and cheering others on. You never know what may be going on behind the smile.

    I am grateful that people are asking questions, raising awareness, and preparing. Whether or not it's an oncoming storm those preparations very well may save someone's life.

  6. The feeling of being weak, not able to handle stress, responsibility, feeling like a failure at all that is attempted, like a disappointment, that's where feeling like a burden comes in to play. I have worn a divot on the side of my bed….from not wanting to get out of it. I'd like to find a hole to put my head in frequently. I force myself to go to counseling appointments, then rush back home. I occasionally work up the courage to be social, putting my game face on, then the next thing I know….back to my room. I try not to complain, especially to my husband via the web cam, he has enough to concern himself with. The counselor cares, for an hour, the psychiatrist just pushes pills.

  7. This organization is making a difference, I have seen YouTube, and soldiers pass info along to friends. http://battleindistress.org/

  8. Sorry, just having a pity party. I'll be fine. Helped to vent.

  9. CHRISTIE WAGNER | January 29, 2013 at 7:18 pm |

    It's bad enough that active duty wives don't receive help but think what happens when you are the wife, then widow, of an officer who's fought in three wars and you were the around-the-clock caregiver for him the last 4 years of his life when he became physically almost totally immobile and mentally incompetent. Then, as thanks for your care, his estranged offspring (estranged many years before you even met your husband), have the money to hire attorneys to grab your entire estate and make you homeless and destitute.

  10. I can relate to this article. I just lost my husband who is a army ranger vet to suicide a couple months before our son was to be born. His army buddy took his about 8 months prior to that. And I continue to read the different vets and active duty soldiers who are continuing to take their lives due to different pressures.

  11. So basically, if you’re the anchor, you’re not allowed to feel suicidal? When you put suicide in a tiny box like that, it is a huge issue. You shame people for feeling that way if they are an “anchor”.

    I have attempted suicide a few times since my husband’s enlistment. I got a lot of threats and harassment from his command. I went through every resource the military offered and got turned away. My mental health issues became a joke in my husband’s shop, and I am constantly ridiculed by servicemembers and spouses(a Chief from my husband’s command made my issues public domain).

    But how dare I feel this way, right? How dare I not fit into that tiny little box. It was attitides like that that prevented me from getting the help I desperately need.

  12. First, stop referring to the spouse as “her”. I am a male spouse and it is just hard if not harder on us when we are left dealing with everything. Second, I have attempted suicide when my wife came back from a deployment. I won’t go into details. I am not sure why it all happened or why I thought that was the right choice at the time. I do know that no one in the military gave a rats ass. The is no real support out there for those of us that struggle. I reached out to chaplains, chain of command, behavior medicine on post. Three appointments later and I was “cured” and an outcast from my wife’s unit. The military and all of their talk of support for soldiers and families is cheap lip service.

  13. With all due respect, I think the fact that you are a Navy wife clouds your judgement on this issue. The burden of combat in these two wars has been bore by the Army/Marines and National Guard, not the Navy/Air Force/Coast Guard. I don't expect you to understand what five solid years out of eleven in heavy combat does to a man. However, I know all too well. I don't expect you to comprehend that the men in these branches have seen more combat than any before them. THAT changes people. Those changed people come home, and most of them…will never function fully again. That is statistically played out in piles of research since the Vietnam war. Those bills from Vietnam in PTSD related family issues are just now coming due 30 to 40 years later. Your suggestion is that people get waist deep in the process of healing.

  14. Cont'd Again, understandable with your prospective as a Navy wife…but my husband has not been home more than six months straight in TWELVE years. True story. Between deployments, TDY and training…exactly when do I have the time to myself to focus on myself to give in to the process. More importantly, when does HE have the time to give in to his own process? You are missing the real issue…the OPTEMPO of the past two wars is INHUMANE. Period. End of story. You are naive to think this storm is not coming, and what is worse is you are using your platform to dminish it.

  15. Personally, in recent months the family memeber mental health issues I've worried most about were the children of our families as opposed to spouses. I learned my college age daughter was seeking mental health at the university. As parents we simply ALWAYS do our best for our children – ALWAYS – right? We left for a European duty station 3 weeks after 9/11. Our military member was deployed 27 months with at least another 12 months field training. I'd happily leave work to spend the rest of the evening transporting and supporting 4 children to and from various sporting, academic and theatre activities; sometimes ending well past bedtime. As a side note, I might have fit another Bachelor's and Master's degrees in the same time frame as couldn't waste my Gi bill benefits. Hubby is now retired, but recently our eldest (21) sent a dagger to my heart with "You weren't there for us emotionally" . Her age during deployments was 12-16. In exploring the topic with my now 19 year old I encountered an even deeper critique of my parenting.

  16. Honestly their ideal mom is the "Gilmore Girls" mom – no cable in Europe that was their tv. The younger two still at home have come to my defense. I've since realized as military spouses and members we cannot let those we've protected from all we endured emotionally, suddenly project their learned idealism upon us as they come into adulthood. We ALWAYS did our best! You want to be a different adult, be a different parent…learn from our ALWAYS BEST efforts!!

  17. Mrs. Roberts | January 30, 2013 at 4:49 am |

    This is a greater concern than you may think. We have children and spouses dying if suicide. The only difference is that you do not read about them in the papers. I have taken a stand here in my community. I believe that denial of the facts only feeds the stigma. No one ever thinks that this will happen to them, and when it does
    they are mortified. Rather than sweeping the truth under the rug, we need to further educate and work on prevention.
    Please understand that I speak up so that. save lives. No parent should ever walk in these shoes. Feel free to look at my profile @www.militaryspouse.com/profile/850

  18. @sabrina, how dare you insinuate that the Navy is not contributing to the 11 years of wars going on! I am a very proud wife of a Navy SEAL and my husband as well as his teammates have put in over 260 days a year deployed to combat zones or training. My community is full of men who have contributed just as much if not more of their time and lives as your army or marines. Don’t delude yourself that this is only a two branch military fight.

  19. @sabrina, how dare you insinuate that the Navy is not contributing to the 11 years of wars going on! I am a very proud wife of a Navy SEAL and my husband as well as his teammates have put in over 260 days a year deployed to combat zones or training. My community is full of men who have contributed just as much if not more of their time and lives as your army or marines. Don’t confuse yourself that this is only a two branch military fight.

  20. Sabrina, as I would not begin to make judgements of other forces you shouldn't either. I've been a SEAL spouse for 13 years and I can speak with direct knowledge of SEAL teams deploying for a year all throughout the past 11 years and still. If you want to get down to the nitty gritty of "statistics " I could blow you away with the "actual" amount of work being done vs. sitting around "waiting" to do work. There are all sorts of issues with optempo for ALL branches. Not one worse than the other. Stop denigrating the Navy about their fair share of combat effort. By doing so you take away from the real problem at hand being discussed in this article.

  21. David L. Heckman | January 30, 2013 at 11:34 am |

    When the military went all volunteer, this is a side effect not thought of. When suicide is felt as the only solution to a problem, something is very wrong. I know there is help but no one wants to admit they need help. The military and their families are thought of as strong and no help is needed, wrong idea. It is stronger to see the need for help and getting it. I am retired Army veteran, been in combat, left my family for periods of time, and my wife has let me know how hard life was without me and I feel the same. I am now a mental health counselor, there is more help out there today than ever but no one uses it unless ordered to, maybe we need to be ordered to get help and follow thru to the end no matter what.

  22. Yeah let's keep the women sniping at each so they stay away from one of the primary issues — no matter what branch of service your spouse is in, the fact of the matter is, it is more important that your relationship with one another. Our spouses chose this profession over our relationship with them, they continue to choose it, and if given the further choice between us (and our children) or this "career" guess who loses. We have to find some way to connect with one another, get some self esteem and build lives outside of the relationship — they already did.

  23. Having read all of his books AND met Dr. Joiner (and specifically discussed this complex topic with him). I also I believe his theories are right on target for the general population and his studies and data certainly support that. On the topic as it relates to the military, I'd like to share but a few sources DR. JOINER, himself, shared with me on recent studies and quite a few of the published articles, lending evidence that the military/ military family faces additional stressors and do not exactly fall into the same proven theories the general population do:
    Military Suicide Research Consortium
    Article published January 29, 2013 By Campus Progress
    "The military demands a narrowly defined hyper masculine version of toughness and strength that typically isn't associated with those who admittedly suffer from and seek from mental health issues. This dangerously fabricated binary can lead those suffering in silence feeling disparate to take measures into their own hands".
    As far as suicide rates being lower among military:
    Same site provided by Dr. Joiner- "Doctors Warned on Combat Link to Military Suicide Risk" published Jan 28, 2013
    " Rates for civilian and military are now about the same when matched along age and gender demographics, but before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars started suicide rate was about half of the rate for general population."
    Also found on the same site provided to me by Dr. Joiner:
    According to Dr. Craig Bryan (who I have also attended lectures with on military mental health studies). The biggest implication of the new research is that there are differences between the civilian and military population.
    Same link provided By Dr. Joiner:
    Quoting Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, " One suicide in a family boost future suicide risk for everyone inside the home".
    Dr. Alan Berman, "No question, data supports there's at least a doubling of risk among surviving family members."

    This data concludes to the person with common sense that if suicide numbers among active duty soldiers are on the rise then the numbers are also increasing for family members. Soldiers face unique stressors and DO NOT fall solely into conventional theories of suicide, neither do family members or "anchors". I am the wife of an active duty soldier of twenty years. My and myself, along with two sons have survived the suicide of our twelve year old son who died of a "deployment related mental illness".

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