She’s an accountant by training, but Tara Barton was called on in February 2004 to reach someone who was acutely suicidal.
The person in crisis was the wife of a member of the New Mexico National Guard on deployment in Iraq.
Barton manages the Guard’s FAC or Family Assistance Center in Rio Rancho. She and colleagues provide families throughout the state with help and support many desperately need. The FAC is new, founded in summer 2003 and slated to be open for just the duration of deployment of National Guard members, according to Barton.
“A lot of our families have never dealt with deployment before,” says Barton, who assists families with all sorts of needs, from medical to schooling to things as basic as replacing a broken refrigerator – assistance that already stressed families sorely need. Barton knows this from experience.
Her husband is in the National Guard and has been serving in Iraq since February 2003. Meanwhile, she is juggling a job, house and three children, ages 8, 9 and 10.
In 14 months her husband has been home for just one two-week period last November. His absence has taken its toll, just as it had for the suicidal wife with whom she spoke.
“She was having a really hard time. She sounded really desperate,” recalls Barton. “I talked to her for several hours over a couple of phone calls. Finally, she admitted that she had tried suicide the prior evening.”
The wife in crisis lived, but the experience spurred Barton to reach out for assistance to suicide prevention experts in New Mexico.
“I logged on to the suicide prevention website for New Mexico, and it was under construction. But I got the name of Karen Gaylord, and so I called her.”
A manager with the New Mexico Department of Public Health, Gaylord and a colleague met with Barton and four other National Guard family program and command central employees to offer a “mini-workshop” on suicide prevention.
Barton applied the knowledge she gained to a March 13 “reunification” workshop for families offered by FAC. She also tapped the services of Molly McCoy Brack, professional director at Agora: UNM Crisis Center in Albuquerque.
“I spoke to them about how to recognize signs for suicide. Families are nervous about that,” says McCoy Brack, recalling the anxious mood of audience members when she first entered the meeting room. “They were very emotional. Some were distraught, others were crying and some had their heads on the table,” McCoy Brack says, adding that speakers prior to her arrival had discussed post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues that may have been distressing to those in attendance. “There were women, children, grandparents. Some hadn’t seen their loved ones in a year and a half.”
When McCoy Brack began her suicide prevention talk, the audience was really engaged.
“They were glued. They asked a lot of questions. One guy in his 60s was in fatigues. He knew suicide was such a problem with Vietnam vets,” says McCoy Brack. “They wanted to know how to know if someone is suicidal, how to talk to them, if bringing up suicide will put the idea in their heads.”
McCoy Brack addressed all the questions – and encouraged attendees to call her crisis center. She also left literature about suicide prevention. Because all calls to the UNM Crisis Center are confidential, she can’t say if Guard families have acted on her advice to phone when they need to.
What does Barton with the National Guard think is the next step for crisis interventionists and other suicide prevention workers in assisting families of troops and returning veterans?
“I learned the warning signs for suicide can be real subtle. We need to get this information out to families.”
Helping families as important as helping soldiers
How well a family is coping with their loved one’s deployment to a combat zone is critical both during and after deployment.It’s also vital to a soldier’s mental health.
“Psychosocial crises that families may go through (while loved ones are serving in the military) can impair their functioning,” says Lawrence Lehmann, MD, chief consultant for mental health with the Department of Veterans Affairs.“And also when the service member hears about this, it adds to their stress.”
That can mean overload for soldiers already battling enormous stressors on the battlefield. And when families are reunited, how well the family functioned in the soldier’s absence – did the bills get paid, did the kids do OK in school, were resentments over separation kept to a minimum – will affect how families function post-deployment.
So support to families of active-duty service members is a vital element of delivering community mental health services – so that problems and potential for divorce can be avoided when families are reunited.
Are Veterans at Your Planning Table?
“It’s a moral and ethical imperative to embrace everyone – of all ages, all backgrounds, all races, all motivations. It’s a moral imperative to have people at the table so they can speak for themselves.” – Keri Lubell, PhD, a CDC behavioral scientist who is studying the state planning process for suicide prevention
When state coalitions gather to devise or implement suicide prevention plans, they may embrace diverse stakeholders from both public and private sectors. Yet veterans organizations may be overlooked.
“As many states are working to expand their suicide prevention programs to address needs across the lifespan, having diverse groups – including returning veterans – could be valuable to state planners. It is an opportunity for state suicide prevention planners to examine how they might be able to help veterans,” says Keri Lubell on engaging veterans groups in state planning for suicide prevention.
Why is it that veterans may be overlooked in the state planning process – or in the overall delivery of services for suicide prevention?
“There’s a sense that the military takes care of its own, that they have programs to address suicide prevention among soldiers and vets,” says Molly McCoy Brack, professional director of Agora: UNM Crisis Center in Albuquerque, N.M. It’s true that military and veteran programs to address suicide are in place. Yet their depth, scope and reach vary along with veteran participation levels – with many veterans choosing to seek help from non-VA-affiliated resources.