Soldiers and Suicide: Can Mediation Help?

Soldiers have been returning from war physically unharmed for decades, only to die by their own hand weeks, months or even years after coming home. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have perpetuated this no differently. Military specialists try to understand why this happens and then offer some, often unsatisfactory, explanation to grieving families. Mental health professionals look to sometimes undiagnosed (or ignored) preexisting mental health conditions in suicidal soldiers as having provided a warning system. Others look to war trauma, particularly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, as the cause. Yet all of this looks at suicide after the fact, not before it happens.

In today's New York Times, a cover article by Erica Goode ("After combat, Victims of an Inner War") focuses on a particular group of soldiers from the 141st, who suffered four suicides upon returning home from Iraq. The unit experienced the death of two friends and colleagues just two weeks before they were to go home which some claim to have precipitated the suicides of the other four. The article also mentions that there had been impending divorce and/or claims of domestic disputes involving all four of the soldiers who committed suicide. In fact, at least one soldier -- who was in the midst of stressful divorce proceeding with a different woman with whom he had a child -- shot himself in the presence of his girlfriend in their home.

All of this leads to the question: can mediation help?

Mediation has long been a process used most frequently during the point at which conflict has already escalated. Yet there are those, myself included, who have advocated for the use of mediation in a more preventative way. In fact, like couple's therapy, mediation has the potential to avert irreconcilable breakdowns in relationships. The key shift that needs to occur, particularly with such a high stress population as soldiers returning home from war, is educating parties about the positive uses of mediation before things escalate.

One of the most frequent refrains involving the epidemic of suicidal soldiers is that most soldiers, by nature, don't seek help. In general, they tend to be more private and individualistic, thus relying on their own internal resources to get through stress and trauma. Preventative, facilitative mediation, then, might be the perfect process for this demographic. A focus on practical discussions and solutions with a key emphasis on self-determination could allow soldiers and their significant others a space in which to negotiate things before one leaves for war; or better yet, before one leaves for basic training. The military could make mediation mandatory for all soldiers, not just for those with husbands or wives. Such a process could be equally beneficial between the 18-year-old soldier and his or her parents as between the soldier-wife and her spouse. Married couples could negotiate means and frequency of contact between them and/or between a soldier and his or her children; something that would equally benefit soldiers who are separated or divorced from relationships involving children. The 18-year-old soldier and her parents could create a plan whereas the parents keep in contact with her friends, so as to ensure ongoing connection and support within her community.

There are countless possibilities of what could be discussed and addressed, plans that could be put in place in advance of combat, so soldiers could experience enduring connection to loved ones and so that those connections would have the greatest chance of sustainability upon a soldier's return. Mediation could take place via telephone, video conferencing or online chat during a soldier's tour of duty, to include negotiations regarding the school a child will attend that fall, for example, or when and how to celebrate a significant birthday, holiday or anniversary. Follow-up mediation could be required as part of re-entry after combat.

I suggest these steps not in place of therapy, but ideally in conjunction with therapy and/or for those soldiers who are distrustful of, or too proud for, therapy as a process. Culturally speaking, Americans have a tendency to wait until things have escalated before creating steps toward positive intervention. Mediation is just one of many measures that could be taken from a preventative standpoint for the well being of our soldiers and their families.

By Laura L. Noah
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