By Amaani Lyle, American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 24, 2012 – In an interview with a North Carolina newspaper, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta voiced concern over suicide rates throughout the military and acknowledged the complexity of the issue.
The tragedy of suicide eludes “quick fixes,” the secretary told Greg Barnes of the Fayetteville Observer.
“It’s a real human loss,” he said. “This situation, people who take their lives, it just strikes me as such a terrible waste of humanity when that happens.”
Panetta described suicide as “very much a human problem” in which society as a whole grapples for answers.
“We’ve got to deal with it as best we can, because we are a family,” Panetta said. “In the military, we have to take care of our family members, and they deserve the best treatment and support we can give them.”
The secretary outlined the Defense Department’s efforts in combatting suicide, specifically through joint funding with the Department of Veterans Affairs to allot $100 million toward advancing diagnosis and treatment.
“We’ve really been pushing on trying to open up access to quality mental and behavioral health care, trying to expand access, so we’ve got some 9,000 new psychiatrists and psychologists, social workers and nurses,” Panetta said. In addition to increasing the roster of mental health professionals by 35 percent, the DOD has made efforts to elevate ongoing mental fitness and must not stop there, he added.
“I know the commanders themselves have gone out to their troops and basically said that we have got to make people at every level aware and sensitive to this problem to make sure we can spot the signs of stress,” Panetta explained. “But it’s going to take all of that and a hell of a lot more to try to be able to get a handle on this terrible problem.”
The secretary said he believes that addressing the stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder and similar mental health issues must start at the top, with an understanding of the illness’s intricacies.
“Just like sexual assault, when it comes to suicides, we have got to make our leadership in the military aware of what this problem is about,” he said.
Leadership must therefore forge avenues for friends and family members to seek help for someone they suspect may be struggling, the secretary said.
“We’ve got to make family members feel that there’s a way to approach this within the family network, that can respond to that individual with compassion, with caring. … We have got to work on the ability of family members to feel comfortable that they have a place to go when they’re worried about someone committing suicide,” the secretary said.
Noting that suicide is an issue in society at large, not just in the military, the secretary said community support may be available to help the military address its suicide problem.
Panetta said he discussed the suicide issue with the military’s combatant commanders recently.
“They’re aware of it,” he said. “They’re concerned by it. As I told them, it’s important that we have to continue to kick ass on this issue. We can’t just assume that it’s going to be dealt with.”
The issue has to be at the top of all leaders’ agendas, he said, and should be one of the things he and other leaders talk about when they meet with troops.
“We owe it to the people who serve in our military — people who are willing to put their lives on the line to protect our country,” Panetta added. “Surely, we owe it to them to do everything we can to protect them.”
Leon E. Panetta
Special Report: Suicide Prevention and Awareness