Policy-ish

Mental Health Groups Ask White House To Reverse Suicide Letter Policy

The American Psychiatric Association, along with other mental health organizations, has asked the White House to overturn its policy of not sending condolence letters to the families of service members who commit suicide.

According to the APA, soldiers who commit suicide still receive full military honors. But the families of soldiers who take their own lives won't receive a condolence letter from the president, unlike those of colleagues killed in the line of duty.

Suicide Rate By Military Branch

The rates per 100,000 people of suicide among active-duty personnel in the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force. The statistics show an increase in suicide rates since 2001, compared with the relatively steady rate of suicide among the U.S. civilian population.

Rate of Suicide Among Active Soliders from 2001 - 2009

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Mental Health America are gathering signatures for petitions to abolish the policy.

A change in the policy would send a message that discriminating against people with mental illness isn't acceptable, the APA says.

We talked with Dr. Michael Blumenfield, past speaker of the assembly of the APA and a professor emeritus of psychiatry at New York Medical College, about the issue. He told Shots these letters are important because they're symbolic.

"First of all, it's an acknowledgment that their son or their child has been recognized as a hero," Blumenfield said.

But what's even more significant is not getting a letter, he said. "It becomes a slur on their memory that they don't deserve."

Blumenfield said that he's spoken to family members of soldiers who  committed suicide after being traumatized from war experiences.

"Obviously, the family is devastated and no one letter is going to change the grief they have," he said. "But I think that the fact that they are, in a sense snubbed by a president that is usually known… to be a thoughtful, caring person is very hurtful to them."

The number of suicides among soldiers has been on the rise, and the different branches of the military have had to cope. In June, NPR reported the number of soldiers who committed suicide in the U.S. military rivaled those who were killed on the battlefield in Afghanistan this year.

Also this summer, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff, told NPR's Robert Siegel that the Army continues to work toward eroding the stigma associated with mental health issues.

"I think we're making progress at getting at this problem, but I fear we'll never totally eradicate the stigma involved with behavioral health issues, these hidden injuries of war, but I promise you that the Army leadership is totally committed to making that happen," he said.

The Department of Defense didn't provide a comment on the policy despite repeated requests from Shots.

UPDATE

"Under the current program, the Secretary of Defense does not send condolence letters to next-of-kin of members who commit suicide," the Department of Defense e-mailed in a statement.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.