Ten days before his twins were born, he attempted suicide for a fourth time and was referred to the unit’s chaplain. He wanted more help but the unit was not taking him seriously enough. After his fourth attempt, “he lost all hope and faith in the system to care for him.” The head of psychiatry told his wife they were so overrun with mental illness that they could not possibly accommodate all the soldiers that needed help. He died by hanging on the installation following four suicide attempts.
This soldier was referred to the chaplain because mental health professionals were unavailable… and this was after four suicide attempts. The above vignette is from a 2010 Department of Defense report (PDF) on military suicides that recommended that each service member have an annual face-to-face meeting with chaplains for counseling and referral to other agencies.
If a person with four suicide attempts is not afforded dedicated help, then we have pretty powerful evidence that the military is woefully under-staffed to handle mental health issues. And it shows the (extreme) level of reliance the military has on chaplains as members of the mental health team.
In an encouraging note, the DoD report also included recommendations that chaplains and others have “evidence-informed” counseling training. An Army Report (PDF) from 2010 proposed the creation of 72 new chaplain positions and also included the chaplains within the military’s mental health team. A separate Army Forces Command soldier risk management program refers “Extreme High Risk” individuals to the unit chaplain.
If the military wants to employ chaplains beyond their basic credentials, it is important that they be trained as counselors rather than just as clergy. The DoD Report emphasized this point, saying, “The training of chaplains cannot be emphasized enough.” However, they were more circumspect in a later portion of the report in which they offered a very carefully-worded rebuke:
Chaplains may benefit from increased sensitivity to issues pertaining to religion, spirituality, and death by suicide, and how, occasionally, well-intentioned but insensitive mention of such issues might cause harm to the surviving family member.
One might read into this that Chaplains should not use death and dying as an opportunity to evangelize military personnel or their grieving families. This is an important point, but it’s unclear whether the DoD was making a general point or treading lightly to avoid ruffling the feathers of evangelistic chaplains. Let us hope it was the former.
These DoD and Army reports were published in 2010. Unfortunately, military suicides have reached a rate of one per day, outpacing combat deaths and reinforcing the already dire feelings about the mental health and personal well-being of military personnel. Military leadership has been aware of the issue for years, addressing suicides and post-traumatic stress together as two outcomes of higher deployment rates and the general stress of military life.
As a result of the 2010 reports, the military has implemented several strategies, one of which is under the broad heading of “resiliency.” “Resiliency” is an umbrella term that addresses areas like family, mental, social, and spiritual fitness. A key focus area of resiliency is the problematic “spiritual fitness” programs which have spread throughout all branches of service, including at the Department of Defense level and in military hospitals. The question is whether the military is being effective or even honest in its claim to support the beliefs of all personnel.
There is the obvious problem that the Constitution prohibits an establishment of religion in government. It would be (and is) unconstitutional for the military to promote any specific religion or religion in general as a means to mental health. The idea that military leaders can or should make decisions about religion on behalf of service members is both pervasive and damaging to the military team. Commanders utilize their chaplains to provide nondenominational or even sectarian prayer to captive audiences. The Marines are allowing a prominent Christian shrine at Camp Pendleton to stand. The spiritual fitness programs themselves assume a “spirit” and are administered by a chaplaincy that that continues to avoid support for atheists and has censored Humanist identity. Early in 2011, presumably following the initial training and response from the suicide-prevention reports, several senior chaplains admitted they would try to convert a dying service member.
Well-meaning (and some not-so-well-meaning) folks have called for chaplains to be the solution to this problem. Some put forth faith as a panacea to solve all problems related to suicides and mental health issues. The “Get Religion” blog calls for the military to integrate chaplains more fully into suicide prevention, and implies that that necessarily involves “getting religion.” The confusing and undefined concept of “spiritual” fitness was mentioned frequently as a mode of suicide prevention. The DoD and Army reports suggested expanding on ”spiritual fitness” assessments as part of routine physical checkups. The concern arises again that chaplains are included alongside psychological and other counseling professionals, yet chaplains do not necessarily have professional counseling credentials and have certainly shown no interest in reaching out to atheists and Humanists with authentic support.
If the military wishes to utilize chaplains as the first line of defense for mental health issues (including suicide and PTSD), then chaplains must be trained in scientific and secular counseling techniques. If the military is to benefit from the religious background and pastoral care credentials chaplains have, then military leaders must invite or require chaplains to be trained, resourced, and, above all, willing to provide for the needs of all service members on the terms of the service member.
This means that a troubled young soldier referred to a chaplain by a commander will find a chaplain who can provide information and resources to Humanists and Wiccans just as effectively and enthusiastically as they would Catholics or Lutherans. Spiritual Fitness arguably has the same issues as the chaplaincy and needs significant reform before it can be truly effective for those who don’t hold the majority Christian beliefs. Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Guardians need leadership to commit wholeheartedly to science-based and truly open approach to line-level counseling, formal counseling, and mental health support if programs are to be effective. There should be great skepticism and caution in employing chaplains as mental health or other types of counselors, yet they are currently treated as a primary resource. Improved credentials and openness of the chaplaincy to non-traditional beliefs may be one route to reducing the suicide rate within the military, but there are a lot of improvements to be made.