National Press Club

Military culture slow to change on suicide prevention

June 23, 2016 | By Ken Dalecki | kdalecki@hotmail.com

Chris Daniels spoke about how the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) helped him deal with his son's suicide at the National Press Club. He was joined by Kim Rucco, chief external relations officer for suicide prevention at TAPS, and Gregory Reuss, a retired Marine Corps colonel.

Chris Daniels spoke about how the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) helped him deal with his son's suicide at the National Press Club. He was joined by Kim Rucco, chief external relations officer for suicide prevention at TAPS, and Gregory Reuss, a retired Marine Corps colonel.

Photo/Image: Ferdous Al-Faruque

The U.S. military's "do or die" culture makes it difficult for many service members and veterans to seek the help they need in dealing with depression that can lead to suicide, Kim Ruocco, a leader of a survivors' service organization, said at a June 23 National Press Club Newsmaker event.

Ruocco, chief external relations officer for suicide prevention for Arlington-based Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), was joined by two others who lost military family members to suicide in calling for a cultural change to encourage service personnel and veterans to seek help with depression rather than seeing it as a weakness and trying to fight through depression on their own.

Although statistics are imprecise, Ruocco said the suicide rate among active duty and military veterans is thought to be about 19 per 100,000 compared to a general population rate of about 14 per 100,000.

Younger service personnel seem more open to seeking treatment for mental stress than their senior peers, and high-ranking leaders are doing a better job of letting personnel know that they should get help, Ruocco said.

She said changes in attitude have been slower in coming in mid-level ranks. She believes her husband, John, an Iraq combat Marine pilot, felt "boxed in" by a military culture that encourages its members to tough out physical and mental challenges.

"He saw depression as a weakness, not an illness," she said.

Although the Department of Veterans Affairs has been criticized for long waits for care, Ruocco credited the department with doing a good job of treating those contemplating suicide.

"The challenge is getting those who need help to come forward," she said. She noted that multiple deployments and limited resources have added to stress faced by active duty personnel.

Gregory Reuss, a retiree Marine Corps colonel, said he should have been more direct in dealing with his son, Paul, a Marine Corps veteran, on getting help for depression.

"Trust your gut, engage," he said. "Suicide is preventable."

He said commanders are becoming more sensitive to mental health issues and cited establishment of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, which has assistance programs and a crisis intervention number (800 273-8255).

Chris Daniels credited TAPS with helping him deal with the suicide of his 19-year-old son, Tray, while serving in Kuwait. Networking with others who have lost military relatives to suicide has "helped me deal with the grief and anger," he said.

Ruocco said TAPS has assisted nearly 70,000 relatives and friends of suicides since its founding in 1994. It has a 24/7 suicide prevention number, 800-959-TAPS (8277).