On Thursday, the U.S. Army will raise the flag on suicide prevention awareness by standing down.
"We're shutting down the entire Army for a day to make sure that everybody is aware," said Dr. Stephen Morris, a psychiatrist and residency training director at Tripler Army Medical Center on Oahu. "I think that's what you do, and you just don't give up."
The system-wide focus on mental health comes after the Army experienced 38 suicides in July, the most since the service began releasing monthly statistics in 2009.
Part of the Army's goal with the second suicide stand down since 2009, is to remove the stigma that's created when soldiers seek mental health services. Many soldiers believe promotions or security clearances can be threatened if they pursue psychological or psychiatric treatment. Officers charged with promoting the Army’s campaign insist that’s no longer the case.
“There's nothing that transfers from who you're seeing for behavioral health that transfers into you military record in any way, shape or form,” said Sgt. Maj. Frank Leota, commander of U.S. Army Pacific.
Leota, a decorated combat veteran, speaks from experience. Recently, he sought help from a mental health professional after multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan left him with unbearable guilt for those who never made it home.
“You start second guessing yourself hard,” Leota confessed,” so yeah, I was a pissed off dude. I was fortunate enough to have family say, 'Hey, we noticed some things with you; you need to go talk to someone,’ and I did, and it's helped me a lot.”
Leota said the Army’s stand down relates directly to what he and his family went through. The service wants fellow soldiers, commanding officers and relatives to step forward if they notice warning signs of sadness, depression or anger that may lead to suicidal thoughts.
"That's what we're asking the entire leadership and soldiers to do," said Leota, "To begin, just to talk to each other (and) be transparent and open, and know and understand that we do have an issue."
Although 12-month deployments and the anxiety that comes with combat plays a role in the mindset of soldiers who contemplate taking their own lives, the Army’s suicide rate may also be a reflection of the general population. The service is seeing an increase in suicides among soldiers who have never stared down the enemy.
“So, deployment itself is not the factor,” said Wayne Hankammer, suicide prevention program manager for U.S. Army Pacific. “It's the impact of whatever life stressors are pushing them to the, 'I'm overwhelmed and I can't manage that anymore.’”