SUICIDE EXPERT: Nothing Will Change Until Leaders Take Proper Ownership of Prevention Programs Results

The Army is closing on a new all-time record for suicides in 2012. Despite countless awareness campaigns, briefings and rhetoric, soldiers continue to kill themselves with no end in sight … except at Ft Bliss. The Texas post is one of the Army’s largest. It also boasts the lowest suicide rate in the Army this year among large Army posts. Washington D.C.-based Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, a licensed clinical psychologist, says suicide prevention briefings, programs and awareness campaigns are useless without leadership buy-in and genuine support. Van Dahlen is the founder of Give and Hour, a non-profit organization that provides free confidential treatment for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, sexual health and intimacy concerns, and loss and grieving to military families and veterans impacted by the current wars. Pictured above, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Fort Bliss Commander Maj Gen Dana Pittard at a recent award ceremony. (DoD)

A Visit With General Dana Pittard

by Barbara Van Dahlen
Time Magazine, Oct. 2, 2012

I just returned home from my third trip to Fort Bliss in two months. I made the first two trips so that I could learn about the instillation and the leadership’s approach to preventing soldier suicide.

On this most recent visit I was invited to help train officers as part of the Army-wide Suicide Prevention Stand Down that occurred on September 27.

Fort Bliss is located in El Paso, Texas—barely a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. Home to the 1st Armored Division, Fort Bliss is one of the Army’s largest installations, with approximately 30,000 soldiers.

Dr Barbara Van Dahlen, founder and president of Give an Hour™, is a licensed clinical psychologist who has been practicing in the Washington, D.C., area for 19 years. She specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of children. Dr. Van Dahlen has spent her career interacting with and coordinating services within large systems, including school districts and mental health clinics. In addition, for many years, she served as an adjunct faculty member at George Washington University, where she trained and supervised developing clinicians. She received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Maryland in 1991.

It also has one of the lowest suicide rates in the Army.

I met the commanding general of the 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss, Dana Pittard, through rather unusual circumstances.

In May 2012 Major General Pittard received national attention for a blog that he wrote following the suicide of a Fort Bliss soldier. In his blog, he referred to suicide as an “absolutely selfish act” and implored soldiers to “be an adult, act like an adult and deal with your real life problems like the rest of us.”

He drew widespread criticism for his comments and later issued the following statement: “I realize that my statement was not in line with the Army’s guidance regarding sensitivity to suicide . . . With my deepest sincerity and respect towards those whom I have offended, I retract that statement.”

I was interviewed by the press—and later asked to write a column—about the general’s statements. Through a bit of research, I learned that General Pittard’s comments were written shortly after he returned from the memorial service of a soldier who had killed himself in front of his six-year-old twin daughters.

My comments about his blog focused on the impact of suicide on those who survive it, the anger that survivors feel at the person who chooses to end life rather than continue to struggle with the demons that torment them.

While not excusing the comments that came across as uncaring, I attempted to make sense of them. Soon after my column was published, I received an invitation to visit Fort Bliss.

Every soldier with whom I spoke, regardless of rank or position, expressed tremendous respect and fondness for their general. Many admitted to me that when they first arrived at “Team Bliss” and heard about the commitment to soldiers and families, they assumed that this was just another gimmick. What they found was a general who is intensely serious about these priorities, a general who puts action behind the rhetoric.

— Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. and founder and president of Give an Hour

I had no idea what to expect from General Pittard, and I was very surprised by what I found.

The general is a quiet, thoughtful, and unassuming man who is intensely passionate about preventing what he refers to as “preventable soldier deaths.”

He believes that we can and must improve the overall psychological well-being and the resilience of the force. He believes that we can and must change military culture so that those in need of mental health care seek it when they need it and those in need of intervention are identified as quickly as possible.

He also believes that we can and must prevent high risk and self-destructive behavior among those who are struggling with issues that perhaps even they are unable to identify or articulate.

Most important, General Pittard believes that suicide prevention—and the overall well-being of the force—is a leadership issue.

Time and resources must be devoted to these concerns, but nothing will change if leaders fail to take proper ownership of the issues at hand.

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One Response

  1. Numerous returning vets have attempted sucide and admitted into their mental hospitals throughout the Ft. Bliss Area. Many vets are so drugged up that they isolate and withdraw from society and their coummunity. Alcohol and other drugs are also adaptive approaches that are widely used. Visit the jails, schools and hospitals to determine how effective Ft. Bliss is with our Injured Warriors and their families.

    The world premier Ft. Bliss Restoration & Resilience Center has been reduced to 30 days of intensive & extensive integrative and holistic health services while successfully serving several hundred PTS/TBI active duty Warriors returning from several deployments. Why close a Health Service and continue the sick care model that has never worked well for our vets…labeling & drugging them to death!!!

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