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According to a 2013 Veterans Affairs study, approximately 22 veterans take their own lives every day. That is a staggering 8,030 soldiers a year. In a recent article, former Army Ranger and author Sean Parnell points out that the cause of these disturbing numbers remains unknown. He suggests that it may have to do with the Veterans Administration’s process for identifying and treating soldiers with suicidal ideation:
Given the well-documented challenges in getting access to VA services, there’s little reason to believe a gigantic dysfunctional bureaucracy can respond with the appropriate speed and sensitivity needed for a veteran struggling with thoughts of suicide.
Parnell isn’t wrong. The VA is the Gordian Knot of bureaucratic disasters. How much they are to blame for suicides can only be speculated at but, considering how many individuals have died by accident while under the care of the VA, it’s not an unreasonable suggestion.
Another possibility comes from Forbes, proposing “toxic leadership” may have something to do with it. David Matsuda, an anthropologist, was asked to help find the root cause of suicide among U.S. soldiers, and he decided the best way to go about finding an answer was to study military culture:
The standard investigation of a suicide in the Army is to ask what was wrong with the individual soldier, such as a history of mental illness or a marital breakup. Matsuda decided to take a ‘different angle’ and discovered that soldiers who took their own lives usually did have personal problems, but they also had leaders who were pushing them over the edge by making their lives a living hell.
I think Matsuda’s conclusion is closer to the truth. Military leadership drives everything. Any service member will tell you that when leadership is good, morale is high, and the soldiers are happy. But when it’s unreasonable, unbearable, and unnecessarily punitive, morale is low and soldiers behave accordingly. But is poor military leadership really so pervasive that it creates suicidal despair among the ranks? Apparently so. As soon as the military began looking, they kept finding things. It now defines “toxic leadership” (which it estimates that 20% of U.S. Army soldiers serve under) as follows:
Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance. This leader lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization, which leads to short- and long-term negative effects. The toxic leader operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest. Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves. The negative leader completes short-term requirements by operating at the bottom of the continuum of commitment, where followers respond to the positional power of their leader to fulfill requests. This may achieve results in the short term, but ignores the other leader competency categories of leads and develops. Prolonged use of negative leadership to influence followers undermines the followers’ will, initiative, and potential and destroys unit morale.
Whatever the cause, veteran suicide is a serious issue that warrants further study. Soldiers with suicidal tendencies need access to good mental health care, and the VA may not be the best model for this kind of care. Parnell suggests non-profits and faith-based practices might be better suited to treat these soldiers. Another option is private practice therapists and clinics that do pro bono work with veterans and their families.
When it comes to preventing someone from taking their life, all options need to be available. This is not the time to become obstinate and difficult about treating our soldiers because “that’s not how things are done.” It’s the time to move bureaucratic hurdles and get our men and women the help they need.