SMA on suicide: ‘It’s okay to seek help’

SMA Chandler frankly discusses his own issues. 


By David Vergun  Suicide prevention Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, tells Soldiers thinking about suicide that it’s OK to ask for help. He also discussed his own behavioral health challenges and treatment on the eve of the Army’s suicide stand-down, Sept. 27, 2012.

  • WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 26, 2012) — “It’s a source of strength to ask for help and we are all about being strong in the Army,” said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, on the eve of the Army-wide suicide stand down.

He was referring to the importance of reducing the stigma in the Army concerning seeking help for thoughts or feelings of suicide.

Chandler acknowledged that suicides have been increasing in the Army and remain a huge problem.

“Suicide is an enemy we have yet to defeat,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is to change mindset across the force, build resilience, strengthen life-coping skills and address the stigma associated with asking for help. We’ve got a long ways to go, but we’re going to get there.”

He drew a comparison between a Soldier and a police officer.

“Soldiers are asked to close with and destroy the enemy, and that means ultimately taking another human being’s life,” he said. “If you are a police officer in any community around the United States, if you draw your weapon and shoot it, you are going to see behavioral health care, because we recognize that act is one that places extreme stress on an individual.”

“For our Army and its culture, we will routinely ask you to close with and destroy the enemy, which means to possibly kill someone,” he continued. “Being a Soldier and what we ask Soldiers to do is probably the highest level of performance we will ask of any human being. (Now), we ask you as a United States Soldier (to seek) behavioral health.”

Those who have been in harm’s way are not the only ones at risk for suicide, he said. “More than 50 percent of suicides are Soldiers who’ve never deployed. Our challenge is with each individual Soldier to reach out to them.”

He called junior leaders “truly our first line of defense against suicides,” adding that they “are fully aware of (the resources) out there and their responsibilities, and we make it as easy as possible for them to get the help for their Soldiers that they need.”

Chandler also encouraged family members to ask their Soldiers to seek help or to seek help for themselves.

“There are tremendous resources across the Army to help, but first step is for the individual to say ‘I need some help,’ or for a friend or loved one to say ‘you may have some issues, lets talk about getting some help.’”

Change is taking place for the better, he said. “I’m starting to see some traction around the force about it’s okay to seek help — and that’s a big deal for us.”

He praised the quality of care that is available as well.

“We have tremendous behavioral health care specialists who serve our Soldiers. I’d place our medical community against anyone else’s in the world.”

One of the challenges facing the Army is hiring more behavioral health care specialists, he added. “We’re looking for more ways to bring them onboard.”

Establishing a relationship of trust with the caregivers is just as important as reducing the stigma associated with seeking help for suicidal ideation, Chandler said. He lauded the effort to provide behavioral caregiving at the unit level.

“One of most exciting things we’ve done recently is to start with our embedded behavioral health care, pushing it down to the brigade level. That relationship building between the Soldier, leader and health care provider tells them that there’s care available, easier to get to and to access. And then, the stigma and the walls start to break down.”

Chandler was frank about his own behavioral health challenges regarding post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

“Around 2004 on June the 30th at 1600 in Baghdad, Iraq, a 122mm rocket came into my room and blew up, knocking me around a bit,” he said. “I had to face my own mortality and in doing that I made some decisions from an emotional standpoint that turned my feelings off, and in doing that I put myself in a position over a period of years where I became less attached to those things most important in my life: my family, my wife, and instead, focused on those things I could control, which was my work environment.”

“And that had a negative effect on me and I went into a downward spiral and started to make some poor decisions in life,” he continued. “I got to a place where I needed help, and with the help of some friends and loved ones, recognized that and spent about two years in almost weekly behavioral health counseling.

“When I was interviewed to be the sergeant major of the Army by General (George W.) Casey, who was the chief of staff at the time, he asked me, ‘is there anything I need to know about.’ I told him I’d been in behavioral health care counseling for the past two years. He said, ‘I see that as a strength and would ask if you can to talk about it to Soldiers and families if selected,’ and it’s been a part of what I’ve done for about the last 20 months.”

“Ultimately I’m a better person and a better father, a better husband, which in turn helps me to be a better Soldier because of it,” he said.

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