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Col. Marilyn Brew speaks to a gathering of U.S. Army-Japan and Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force health officials at Tuesday's suicide prevention meeting at the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo.

Col. Marilyn Brew speaks to a gathering of U.S. Army-Japan and Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force health officials at Tuesday's suicide prevention meeting at the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo. (Tim Wightman / S&S)

Look out for each other and admit if you need help.

That is the advice leaders in the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force are giving their soldiers in the hopes of curbing suicides.

It’s an approach that borrows from the U.S. Army. High-ranking health officials representing both armies met Tuesday at the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo to discuss current methodologies being employed and to identify recent progress made by the JGSDF in preventing suicides.

U.S. Army Japan officials helped their Japanese counterparts develop a model for a suicide prevention program in 2006, a year the Japanese army experienced a steep increase in suicides. The 64 suicides equated to 34 for every 100,000 soldiers. The U.S. Army suicide rate over the same period was 18 per 100,000, according to USAR-J Command Chaplain Col. Allen Boatright, who is in his third year working with the Japanese on their suicide program.

"Theirs was almost twice what our rate is and they’re not at war," Boatright said Tuesday.

According to Boatright, USAR-J suggested the Japanese take a three-pronged approach: have commanders emphasize suicide prevention, ensure noncommissioned officers look out for their soldiers’ well-being and implement "buddy teams," where up to five soldiers are organized to watch out for one another.

Since then, the JGSDF’s suicide numbers came down to 52 in 2007 before increasing to 55 in 2008. This month alone, four Japanese troops have taken their own lives. To reinforce the Japanese commitment to the issue, the JGSDF hired 32 out of a planned 35 clinical psychologists that will account for every Japanese army base.

The goal is that the outward command support will help encourage Japanese soldiers not to feel ashamed to seek treatment for depression or post-traumatic stress.

“I think we started the very first small steps in direction of suicide prevention, but we still have a long way to go,” said Col. Yoshitomo Takahashi of the National Defense Medical College in Japan.

Takahashi said he thinks the openness that Americans display about issues affecting them is a good example to follow.

“If [Americans] have problems they admit that they have problems,” said Takahashi. “But I’m afraid that we Japanese push the dust under the carpet and try to behave as if nothing happened.”

Boatright said a major Japanese cultural issue relating to suicide is the absence of hope. He said whereas hope is prevalent in western religions, it is not emphasized in Buddhism and Shintoism, to which many Japanese prescribe.

“It’s very different than a counseling model that you would see in a Christian or Jewish religion,” he said of the Asian-born faiths. “We know that hopelessness leads to suicide in every culture. And so I think to find a valid, powerful source of hope is a big deal.”

Despite the U.S. Army’s recent upturn in soldier suicides (up to 140 in 2008 from 115 in 2007), Medical Department Activity Japan Commander, Col. Marilyn Brew, who attributes the increase to repeated war deployments, said she hopes the Japanese continue seeing positive results using the U.S. Army methods.

“They are basically recognizing and accepting publicly that they have an issue with suicide,” Brew said Tuesday. “The good news is that because we’ve been at this for a while, the U.S. Army, we can share some insight into what has helped us make progress in terms of bringing down the number of suicides.”

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