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University of Kentucky to study effects of military suicides on those left behind

In a state where military suicides are a continuing problem, researchers at the University of Kentucky are studying their effects on Kentuckians who have lost a military or veteran family member, friend or fellow service member to suicide.

The two-year study, Suicide Bereavement in Military and Their Families, is funded by a $677,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense's Military Suicide Research Consortium, said Julie Cerel, the principal investigator and an associate professor in the UK College of Social Work.

During the first six months of 2012, a reported 11 active-duty Army soldiers stationed in Kentucky died by suicide, with a total of 56 since 2009.

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Nationally, there have been 154 suicides among active-duty service members during the first half of 2012, representing an 18 percent increase over the 130 suicides for the same period in 2011, Department of Defense spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said.

She said the Department of Defense has made suicide prevention a top priority and asked every leader throughout the chain of command to focus on the issue by creating a climate that supports seeking help "as a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness."

Officials at Fort Campbell, an Army installation on the Kentucky-Tennessee line that is home to the 101st Airborne Division, have been working intensively on the problem since 2009 when the number of suicides there prompted commanders to set aside routine duties for three days to help soldiers at risk of killing themselves.

Suicides have been a problem for veterans too.

Statewide figures were not immediately available, but nationally the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that a veteran takes his or her life once every 80 minutes on average, accounting for some 6,500 suicides a year, or nearly 20 percent of all suicides in the United States, Cerel said.

Until now, Cerel said, there has been no census of individuals affected by military or veteran suicide, and she thinks it could be one of the first times the effects on family members and friends have been investigated.

UK researchers will interview about 2,000 veterans throughout Kentucky through random telephone interviews and invite people to participate in a subsequent Web-based survey and personal interview. Up to 1,500 community members will be recruited in the same way to compare their experiences with those of veterans.

In addition, more than 100 Kentucky family members who lost a veteran or an active-duty military member to suicide during the past five years will be interviewed. UK researchers are recruiting participants.

"This study will help us understand how many veterans are affected by suicide," Cerel said. "It will also help us examine exposure to suicide in the general population so we can show that suicide affects families, communities and workplaces."

Cerel said active-duty service members and veterans could be at increased risk for suicide because of the enormous physical and psychological demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

She said the ultimate goal of the study is to help develop a comprehensive approach to prevent suicide among military service members.

Retired Army Major Gen. Mark Graham and his wife, Carol Graham, a Frankfort native, said they hope the study will get at the root causes of military suicides. They are traveling across the country encouraging active-duty military members, veterans and civilians not to let depression go untreated.

In 2003, their son Kevin Graham, a UK ROTC and pre-med student, hanged himself from a ceiling fan after he quit taking depression medication because he thought a diagnosis of depression might thwart his future chances as an Army doctor, they said.

The Grahams, who now live in North Carolina, said recovering from Kevin's death was especially hard because another son, Lt. Jeffrey Graham, a platoon leader, died in 2004 when a roadside bomb exploded when he was on foot patrol. He was one of the first soldiers from Central Kentucky to die in Iraq.

Because of Kevin's death, Mark Graham said, "We talk about eliminating the stigma in the military and also in civilian communities. It's got to be treated just like any physical illness or wound. People should be helped and not judged."

Military officials said they are taking intensive steps to prevent suicides.

The Department of Defense has increased the number of behavioral health care providers by 35 percent during the past three years, said Smith, the Department of Defense spokeswoman.

Maj. Gen. James C. McConville, commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and Fort Campbell, said last week that the installation has a suicide prevention strategy built on prevention, detection, treatment and transition.

"Prevention begins with resiliency, and we have implemented the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program to improve the resiliency of our soldiers and families," he said.

Detection emphasizes a concept called the "Golden Triangle" of the soldier's immediate supervisor, his or her buddy and his or her family — the ones most likely to spot signs of distress, McConville said.

"For treatment," he said, "we are embedding behavioral health professionals at the brigade level to reduce stigma and ensure it's readily available to soldiers. ... We have recognized that one of the most important things we can do is to help the soldier through transitions, whether it's through a failed relationship, a financial challenge, a criminal matter or a return from an in-resident behavioral health visit."

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409.
Twitter:@vhspears

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