More support for those affected by suicide from the Pentagon

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The Defense Department is now offering two online courses that provide support and guidance for those affected by suicide. The courses cover things such as communication techniques, ways to connect, or stay connected to a support system, and reminders for how to maintain physical and mental health during a very difficult time. To learn more about them, Federal News Network’s Eric White on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin  spoke with  with Dr. Andrew Moon, acting director for research evaluation and data – surveillance for the Defense Suicide Prevention Office along with Lisa Valentine, who you’ll hear from first. She’s the program manager for casualty, mortuary affairs, and military funeral honors for the Defense Department.

Interview transcript: 

Lisa Valentine: So we have two courses. One is the first one that we made, it’s called “After a suicide.” And this was developed to get the message out that postvention is suicide prevention. And so what we’re saying is that it’s very important that we get the word out that if you’ve been exposed to or affected by suicide, that you too, are at risk. And that what we want to teach everyone is how to recognize what you may be going through, and what assistance is out there, and how to self care. Because what we don’t want to do is to have someone who’s been affected by suicide, who then becomes a victim of suicide themselves. We started this course, by gathering  a working group of experts. And so we pulled them from the service casualty offices who work with survivors every day, and also with the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, whose goal is to prevent suicide from ever occurring. And then we also worked with people in analytics, and the Tragedy Assistance Program for survivors, who is a nonprofit organization. And they work hand in hand with our survivors of suicide.

Eric White: And Dr. Moon, what do you see as this course providing for folks who are affected by a suicide? Whether it be a family or friend?

Andrew Moon: Yeah, that’s a great question, I will take just one step back, we use the term “postvention,” and that’s not a term a lot of people are aware of, if you don’t kind of live in the suicide prevention world. So postvention really is any sort of intervention we can do on behalf of and for someone who has experienced a loss due to a suicide. So that may be the offering of services, supports, etc. And so the biggest goal of these two courses is to make sure that we are getting those services to the people who need. So the first course is really focused on family members, friends, community members who have experienced a  loss by suicide, and what they may be going through, how they may be impacted. We almost think of this as something that you’re never going to be prepared for. And you may need some extra skills, some extra ways of figuring out how to cope with something that you’ve never really been prepared for. And the second course is really integral because it helps people who are in the role of support. So whether that is a casualty ossistance Officer or a chaplain, it really helps them understand what it can be like to sit with someone who’s experienced this loss, try to give them a good understanding of what that person might be going through, how they’ve been impacted, and what their needs might be. Also, with the added layer of even the service provider who is interacting with this family member, this community can also be impacted. So a good portion of the course focuses on how we can support service providers and how they can support themselves.

Eric White: We can start with you on this one, Dr. Moon, what sort of support in your experience, have you seen the victims who are affected by a suicide in their life? What kind of support do they need at that time, like you said, that you’re not really prepared for, and then Lisa, I’d like to also get your insight as well after he’s done.

Andrew Moon: Sure. Yeah. To be transparent, there’s no right or wrong way of grieving and death by suicide is really complicated. So I will be transparent, there isn’t going to be one thing that everyone needs, there’s going to be a myriad of things that someone needs and for some, it could be help just getting back on a day to day routine and helping their family find some sort of path forward through the grief. Some people want to strive to find to make meaning of the loss and, and seek out ways that they could help other survivors or help people who are struggling with suicidal ideation or crisis concerns or others really need to spend time with their spiritual leaders, with their confidents, with their family to find comfort and connection. Connection is key in managing so many things for us and, and there are a few that actually need to go the route of finding some professional support, whether that’s through a counselor or again through a spiritual advisor. So there are a myriad of things you could need. And I think what the course is really aimed to show and to talk about is that is that there is that complexity is that not everyone is going to need the same thing. And so we can approach them all at the same roads, kind of, here’s what you’re gonna need and here are the resources.

Eric White: Lisa, how will these courses fit into what Andrew was just describing in terms of supporting people affected by a suicide?

Lisa Valentine: Well, our courses, they provide different ideas, and it kind of gives you a menu of choices of what you can pick from, that can best help you in, you may want to pick from all of them. You know, from choosing not to be alone,  there’s always someone out there, and we have resources out there where we can connect people to so that they don’t have to be alone in finding that someone to talk to, who will just listen. And we even have experts or people that have gone through this. And it they understand. And sometimes it’s you’ve got to tell your story. And maybe you’ve got to tell your story more than once just to work through it. Because there’s a lot of complexities that come with surviving a suicide death. And, and maybe it’s also taking care of your body physically, as well as spiritually. And so our course provides different ideas to help yourself.

Eric White: Yeah, I’m curious, Lisa, you know, as your role as the program manager for casualty mortuary affairs, military funeral honors, how much of your time is spent in, you know, dealing with the aftermath of tragedies that are unique, like a suicide, and what you can just tell me a little bit about your role, because, you know, that’s got to be a tough job to have, and just your title alone, just kind of brings up a lot of feelings in people.

Lisa Valentine: Absolutely well, it takes a village to help a survivor who’s lost a loved one to suicide. And, and keep in mind, when one person dies, it affects about 135 people by average. And it even includes people that may not have even known the victim. But it’s very important to recognize that in ourselves. So as a program manager, I mean, we have a lot of family members, and I just told you just one person, it’s 135. So  we have hundreds of people that are out there, I call it the frontlines that are out there to take care of survivors. And that’s from the casualty assistance officer, to a long-term case manager. There may be a chaplain, or nonprofit organizations that we partner with, just a myriad of things, I can’t even list them. There’s there’s so many but so it’s not just like one person in our offices, what we want to do is to provide those resources and different services that can help them. I mean, it’s even products. So for example, we have apps, we do real life learning courses, just a myriad of items that we try to help those on the front line and then to also help the survivor directly.

Eric White: Dr. Moon, I’m going to ask you to get a little introspective as well. And tell me about how data is being used in the Defense Suicide Prevention Office and what kind of tools you all have at your disposal to try and prevent suicides before they occur.

Andrew Moon: Another great question. Thank you, Eric. Data is at the crux of much of what we do, what we really focus on in the Suicide Prevention Office is what we call a comprehensive public health approach. And where that really starts is with data, understanding rates and trends and understanding the information that we gathered from who are experiencing these incidents, and not just those who are dying by suicide, but also those who are impacted. And so much of what we do is in the interest of gathering that information, and then turning it into something meaningful. And so we attempt to use our data to inform initiatives, to inform pilots to inform where we should be directing resources. And on top of that, then doing some intense program evaluation to make sure what we’re doing is effective. So on the front end, gathering data and understanding what the population is like that we’re working with and on the back end and making sure that what we do is making sense and is being effective. From my standpoint, I think what I would add is one of the biggest barriers to so much of what we do in suicide prevention is stigma. And what we really hope to do with the provision of these courses is to break down some of that stigma and help people understand not only how they can think about suicide and the experiences you’ve set for themselves, but how they can better interact with their community. Again, making connections and staying connected is extremely important as a coping mechanism as a curative factor and experiencing the loss of death by suicide and have impacts and it can make us feel shameful or, or broken or, or beat us with so many questions that are unanswerable that that make us almost feel more isolated. And so what we’re really hoping to do is make the conversation more common and easier and something that survivors and people who aren’t impacted can talk about in a way and connect.

Eric White: Lisa, anything to add?

Lisa Valentine: Thank you very much. Yes, I do. I would also, you know, if you’re not in crisis, but you do want to do the tough work of surviving a death by suicide, we also recommend coming to our platform, which is military, One Source on military Or you can even call and talk to a human at 800-342-9647. And we also mentioned about TAPS, they can set you up with their mentorship program. They really know a lot about suicide. I just recently attended their suicide seminar that they host annually, and we had 600 family members there. And TAPS can be reached at 800-959- TAPS or 8277. So I encourage you to reach out, you do not have to choose to be alone, talk to someone who will listen and understands the complexity of suicide.

Eric White: Lisa Valentine is program manager for casualty mortuary affairs and military funeral honors for the Defense Department. You also heard from Dr. Andrew Moon, acting director for research, evaluation and data slash surveillance for the Defense Suicide Prevention Office.


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