As some have begun to notice that the Army rate of suicides is increasing, I have been asked what I thought was the cause, and what could be done about it. I'm not a shrink, but I do have experience in the Army, as a Private, as a Sergeant, and as Senior NCO. I have sat through suicide prevention speeches & powerpoints. I have seen the reactions of senior leadership to the problem, and of the Troops to the announcements of the "training," as well as the speeches themselves. I can tell you that more speeches to the Troops is NOT the answer.
There is more than one reason that people choose the permanent solution of suicide to temporary problems, but one of the base reasons why a good number of them choose it is a feeling of worthlessness. There are others who commit suicide to escape physical pain they know cannot be escaped any other way, or those that have otherwise lost the ability to control their own destinies. Suicide is often triggered by a traumatic event, which can fester for years before culminating in a feeling of guilt that becomes insurmountable.
The rate of Army suicides climbed 25% after 2008, and is seeing an increase from that level this year.
It will not be fixed with more speeches. The answer is not even one suicide powerpoint. The answer is good leadership. The answer is not management. And that distinction, or rather the lack of it, is part of the problem. A leader is a member of the group he is leading. He's a part of the team. He knows his teammembers. They follow, because they know he's a part of that team. A manager tells subordinates what to do.
A true leader will know the strengths and weaknesses, the prides and fears of his teammembers. He has an interest in the lives of his teammates. He asks about their health issues, not so he can prepare an answer for his boss, but so he can ensure he doesn't aggrevate the problem, but more importantly because he cares about his Troops. True leadership can not be faked. Those who feign interest are easily seen through, most of the time. And true leadership has wained from my days as a Private. There are some that can fake it for a short period of time, but Troops will see through the fakers and flock to real leaders.
True leadership will prevent suicides, because a True Leader's Troops will know their role in the bigger picture. They will know they are important. And they'll know their part is recognized by their leader. True leadership will prevent suicides by nipping the small problems in the bud before they become big problems, before they become insurmountable.
And that focus on management in recent years, rather than leadership, in the Military is a part of the problem. And as Obama's cuts to Senior NCO's takes hold, the problem will get worse. NCO's that focus on their own careers, ahead of the health and welfare of their Troops are NOT good leaders. The Troops will see it and emulate it, but when those Senior NCO's are in fear of that chopping block, they will be forced, in many cases, to look out for themselves. And the first round of Obama cuts started this year.
The Suicide powerpoints are not true interest in the Troops. They're false interest, and the Troops see right through it, even those, particularly those that are suicidal. Worse, those briefs are a means of the leadership to shirk their own responsibilities of leadership. Yes, battlebuddies should know their fellow Soldier better than anyone, but a laminated card in a Soldier's pocket does not relieve the Sergeant from knowing his Troops, nor does it relieve the Staff Sergeant from knowing his Sergeants, or the Platoon Sergeant from knowing his Squad Leaders.
A Platoon Sergeant cannot know everything about every Soldier, but he should know each of them well enough to know when one is having a bad day, and when a series of bad days indicates its more than just a bad day. And when he asks the Squad Leader or Team Leader what's going on, those unit leaders should already know the answer. They should have already seen it, and talked to that Soldier.
The electronic age does not help this. True Leaders may use electronic communication, including FB, but they don't rely on it. Neither a facebook update, nor an email, replaces in person communication. Some things can ONLY be discussed face to face.
And if a Soldier does not trust his NCO's when the Soldier is having a hard go at it, that is a problem. It is a sign of bad leadership. Unfortunately, the current Military reaction to Suicide, as well as several other issues, places a barrier to that trust. Today's NCO's can place their own careers in jeopardy, if they do not overreact to small issues. How can a Soldier trust his NCO to not drag him to a shrink, with a minor problem, when he's carrying a card that instructs everyone to escort him to professional help if they have doubts.
To put this general concept into a more widely understandable context, think of how many times a day, you are asked how you are doing? In today's world, most of those times, the asker has no greater interest than saying I recognize your presence. But every now and then, you come across someone that means it. You can tell in their tone and voice. And you react to that genuine caring about your well-being. You may come across someone that fools you for a short while with false interest. Politicians work hard to perfect that. But when you realize it, your reaction is more negative than with the daily routine that you know is a lack of interest.
One of George W Bush's successes, despite his father's name, was his excellent memory. He was known for remembering the names of those he had briefly met, and their parents's names and kids' names. He was known to ask about things important to those he came across again.
This is not a new concept. Andrew Carnegie noted in his book "How to Win Friends and Influence People," written decades ago, that genuine interest in those around us creates a genuine bond and breeds success. He noted that it cannot be faked effectively. And he attributed that, with allowing him to put people smarter than himself around him, taking him to the top of an industry in which he was not an expert.
Despite the name of the book, he also points out that his book will not help you manipulate others to your will.