Suicide In Military And Paramilitary Personnel
In the last few months there has been an increased focus, and increased discussion, related to the above noted topic. Much of this interest has concerned itself with immediate tragedies and knee-jerk responses. As those of you who read this blog may know, I have worked as a psychologist in the military/paramilitary (police) universe for over 35 years. In an effort to stimulate some thought and conversation, I would like to share with you what my patients have taught me about the topic of suicide.
Suicidal behaviour almost never occurs in a vacuum. Whether a military or a police case, the act will have most often co-occurred with a prior history of depression; or in the absence of depression at least a profound sense of hopelessness. Moreover, the suicidal individual will likely have been recently inundated with several significant stressors resulting in deep despair. In most cases of suicide there will have been a long slow build-up of hopelessness in tandem with a numbing sense of being powerless to effect any change. Upon careful investigation we are likely to discover that the present state of despair is not the first experienced by the suicidal victim.
The general motivation behind an act of suicide is similar for all; whether military, police, or civilian. Suicidal behaviour is an irrational attempt to escape what appears to the victim, as a hopeless situation. The perceived untenable situation is bound to include personal, family, and/or work related stressors. The key motivational difference between a civilian and a (service) member suicide is that military and police members tend to be more personally invested in their jobs (even more so in elite and highly specialized units). Military and police personnel draw much of their self- image/worth from the work they do. In a sense, they become what they do. Consequently, any threat to that image will result in a strong reaction. (Here is where we find the hesitancy to reach out for help; viewed as weakness by many, and a threat to self-image).
The suicidal picture is often complicated by alcohol. A history of harmful or hazardous drinking often brings with it mood and behavioural concerns including: violence; impulsivity; aggression; intimidation; criminal harassment; or excessive use of force. None of these having much potential for increasing self-esteem. In addition, the use of alcohol during a crisis has the potential to affect judgement, decision-making, and increase the likelihood of impulsive behaviour.
When thoroughly investigating military/paramilitary suicide an important nexus emerges. There is a particular personality type that is attracted to this type of work; and there is a unique organizational culture in which the work takes place. These two variables can interact and influence each other. The military/police culture can reinforce many of the attitudes that characterize the “warrior/cop” personality adjustment. For example, many (service) members are dichotomous reasoners, they see the world in absolute terms; that is, winner/loser, good/bad, right/wrong, success/failure, all or nothing. “If you don’t win them all, you’re a loser”. This rigid style of thinking may assist with the work they do, but when generalized to their self-perceptions as professionals and as human beings it can create fertile ground for crushing disappointment. For there is no one who has not failed at something; we have all been bested by someone at least once in our lives. We have all made mistakes. Yet, when it comes to matters of personal honour or professional reputation most (service) members will accept nothing less that perfection.
In addition to the strong need for achievement, the “warrior/cop” personality often carries a strong need for approval. Much of the reward/reinforcement that derives from military/paramilitary work comes from the respect of the general public and the sense of family provided by other (service) members. Moreover, the (service) members’ families act as places of refuge, understanding, and unconditional acceptance in the “us vs. them” world they perceive. An excessive need for approval can create fertile ground for perceptions of being abandoned, being vulnerable, and being disapproved of. It is pure folly to think that we can have everyone’s approval (agreement) all of the time, and patently inaccurate to believe that we can’t survive without it.
Tragically, this world view leaves very little room for human fallibility or error. A (service) member’s seemingly “together” persona can quickly unravel in the face of significant personal, professional, or family demands; and all three together can create “the perfect storm”. In such situations personal embarrassment or shame are experienced as far more threatening than anxiety or fear; and the loss of respect from colleagues, family, or the public they serve, can feel worse than receiving the diagnosis of a terminal disease.
Finally, the inflexibility often thought to characterize the “warrior/cop” thinking style, at the best of times, can become magnified during times of personal crisis. This result increases the chances that the suicidal individual will have difficulty adopting a different perspective and thinking accurately to a solution. For example, the not uncommon inaccuracy that confuses one’s self-worth with consensus (i.e.” My worth, value, dignity as a human being is determined by what others think of me”) can become confirmed under a barrage of criticism (e.g. “Others are thinking poorly of me, so I am without any human value”); and ultimately impermeable to any self-challenge or change. All of this illogic paving the way to suicide.
In closing I will add that suicide is a complex phenomenon. It would be unwise and unscientific to suggest that one variable in the equation is to blame. In addition, each case is unique; presenting its own set of unanswered questions. When someone is lost to suicide, those left behind inevitably question why. No one should be left without answers; the family, other (service) members, or the public served.
Dr. Mike Webster, R. Psych.