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Fort Drum to take part in Armywide suicide stand-down day, raise awareness of mental health resources


FORT DRUM — Soldiers will spend today focusing on preventing suicides and learning about the post’s available mental health resources as part of a special Armywide suicide stand-down day, the first of its kind.

According to the Department of the Army, Fort Drum has had four cases of suicide among soldiers assigned to post this year, as of July 31.

Post officials said Wednesday they hoped the effort would help soldiers and officers reduce the perceived stigma of seeking help and talking about the problems they face.

“Behavioral health is just as important as your physical health, and if you’ve got a physical health problem, you go to a doctor,” said Col. Gary A. Rosenberg, the post’s garrison commander. “If you’ve got a behavioral health issue, go talk to somebody about it, because these things can be resolved and we can fix them.”

The post will hold a series of activities throughout the day, including a fun run and walk in the morning and a series of educational sessions both for soldiers and civilians and their families.

The stand-down comes as the Army’s suicide numbers this year have increased after drops in 2010 and 2011.

“The nation has asked our soldiers to carry a heavy load over the last 11 years, and they have not failed,” Sgt. Maj. Raymond F. Chandler, the Army’s top enlisted man, told the Associated Press. “But suicide is an enemy we have yet to defeat.”

Fort Drum has had three to seven suicides each year since 2005, statistics that include soldier deaths both at home and in theater.

“Any loss of life of a service member is absolutely tragic,” said Lt. Col. Christian J. Meko, the 10th Mountain Division’s surgeon.

The Associated Press reported that the Army recorded 116 suicides among active-duty soldiers as of July 31. If the pace continued, the Army would approach 200 suicides for the year, up from 167 recorded in 2011.

Col. Meko said he hopes today’s training would destroy any stigma toward soldiers who seek or have sought behavioral health assistance or have considered suicide. He said post leadership has gone out of its way to dispel the notion that a soldier’s search for help would hurt his or her career.

“In the past, there was a fear that if I seek behavioral health care, that’s a sign of weakness, and that is definitely not the case,” Col. Meko said. “It’s actually a sign of strength, and a sign that you’re willing to attack the tough problems.”

Col. Rosenberg said the need for behavioral health help has grown over the course of fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We are putting extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and extraordinary things are happening to them, and not necessarily extraordinary from a positive perspective,” he said. “Having these kinds of reactions is completely normal, and it’s OK to go talk about that and come forward.”

Col. Meko said the biggest indicators of a soldier in trouble are dramatic changes in personality or activity, along with an increase in family, financial or legal stresses. Col. Rosenberg said in many cases, a variety of stressors can arise at one time, pushing soldiers to their breaking point.

He compared a friend, coworker or family member who sees a soldier in trouble and reaches out and helps him or her to a sliding catch of a baseball before it hits the ground.

“This person is right at the end of their rope, but someone sees that this person is hurting ... (and says,) ‘I care; I’m going to step in to help,’” Col. Rosenberg said. “Usually that’s all it takes, is someone just to care enough to step in and help.”

While more work will be necessary, one positive sign Col. Meko said he has seen is an uptick in soldiers coming into post facilities to seek behavioral health help.

In the future, he said, the biggest challenge will be further expanding the post’s behavioral health care resources to meet its soldiers’ needs, whether that’s appropriate medication, therapy or group counseling.

“It’s an extremely complex problem without a cookie-cutter solution,” Col. Meko said.

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