The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Corps Times or its staff.
Marines in our circles recently alerted us to a recent article that is full of dangerous messaging and distorts the intent of “Message to the Force 2019,” recently published by Commandant Gen. Robert Neller.
From Springer: Let’s start from a compassionate frame. It may be that while the content of this article is misguided and potentially dangerous for those who are struggling with thoughts of self-harm, the writer, Col. Dom Ford, was writing from his own pain. Here’s what we know: This issue has affected him personally, and like anyone who leads Marines, he wants to prevent suicides.
Nonetheless, his approach is not based on a sound understanding of the suicidal mind, nor on effective principles of positive influence.
Is suicide selfish? Suicide certainly leaves a wake of devastation for those who are impacted. Survivors of suicide loss are at increased risk for depression, addiction and the emergence of suicidal ideation themselves.
Yet, even though suicide causes massive collateral damage, can it really be considered selfish? The suicidal mode is an altered state of consciousness. When a person is battling with their demons and feeling hopeless, their thinking is often significantly distorted.
They do not see reality the way they would if they were not in suicidal crisis. Their thoughts loop on the theme of how they are a burden to those they love. Their brains actively make a case for how others will not really miss them or that in the long run, those they love would be better off without them somehow.
Take the case of a person who is in the grips of a late stage eating disorder. Such an individual may be dangerously underweight (and will appear so to others). However, when they look in the mirror, they see themselves as fat. In a similar way, those toward the end of a tunnel of despair often have distorted perceptions of reality ― they see themselves as a burden the same way that an individual struggling with anorexia sees him or herself as fat.
Further, those who are in the grips of the suicidal mode often become mentally detached from those they love. When people are in the grips of the suicidal mode, their demons become like the domestic abuser whose first move is to isolate his or her partner from the influence of those who love them. Demons attempt to ambush those who suffer in silence, but those who break this dangerous code of silence can often regain their hope and will to live.
When a Marine (or any other type of warrior) becomes suicidal, the warrior ethos can play an important role. The warrior ethos involves self-sacrifice to protect others. When a warrior applies this ethos to their internal battle, they may be uniquely vulnerable to temporarily seeing suicide as an honorable act — in a way that resembles the Japanese cultural tradition of hara-kiri (a “death before dishonor” practice of throwing oneself on one’s sword).
This is a particularly dangerous mindset. In tactical terms, what has happened is that the enemy has infiltrated a warrior’s mental defenses to such a degree that the warrior now feels that the enemy is grafted onto them and can only be conquered through an act of self-destruction. This is one major reason why veterans have a higher suicide rate than the population at large.
If the goal is to encourage Marines to reach out for help when they are suffering, then the approach taken by Ford is not sound.
There is a principle in psychology called “reactance theory” and it goes like this. Let’s say that you are ambivalent about a major life decision ― maybe even the decision to stay in the fight.
While you are struggling internally with your ambivalence, let’s say that a really forceful person comes at you with a full-frontal assault on your free will. This person tells you that one choice is “clearly wrong” or “shameful” or “stupid” or other similar things. Reactance theory predicts that in response, you will assert your free will and are more likely to make the choice that directly opposes the choice of this shaming individual.
From Ergo: When I hear suicide referred to as “shameful,” several thoughts and feelings pierce my gut. I’ve sat with a rifle in my mouth, set to burst. I know what it’s like to hold the wheel of my truck and imagine how easy it would be too steer off the high bridge. Introducing shame to suicide and the mind and spirit of those contemplating it does not alleviate the shame, the pain, the guilt that put us there.
I also think of those I love who have completed suicide. If that’s a shameful act, are they then shameful and dishonorable people? If those men I hold in high esteem are dishonorable, then what am I? I’m already bathing in shame and grief. Drowning in it. I might as well rid others of myself, since all my beliefs about honor and courage must be wrong.
More importantly, lobbing the grenade of shame into my trench misses the point completely. I am hurting here and despite everything I have done and tried, I cannot escape this pain.
Calling out suicide as shameful also speaks loudly in that it implies that those around the fallen have let their loved one act shamefully. Did they not care, are they shameful too for letting this happen?
Throwing shame into a situation only increases the silence. It increases the need to hide these feelings of wanting to end it all.
What if instead of pointing the finger at those struggling with suicidal ideation, we present solutions?
What if we give hope to people who have lost loved ones to suicide? I find hope in the chaos and questions of a life cut short by honoring the fallen and letting people know the courageous and honorable people they were in life.
For me, this takes the form of racing triathlons and wearing the names of the fallen on my jersey. When I do this, the feelings of helplessness and grief arise and dissipate with every stoke, pedal and footstep. Along the way I can tell my fellow athletes about the men I knew. This empowering action drives me forward and I turn grief and futility into fuel.
From Springer: Effective suicide prevention with Marines requires us to call to the warrior spirit within them, but in a way that is psychologically astute.
Rather than shaming others for struggling or neatly dividing the world into two artificial groups (those who are “Godly” and those who are not), we must lead from a place of humility and understanding by:
• Pointing out that seeking help is in fact the harder, braver choice.
• Empowering Marines to remember that the people and values they would die for are the very things they can choose to live for. This is their “warrior code” and it is the same thing that drives a full and meaningful life after military service.
• Rather than deploying heavy-handed, overreaching judgmental approaches, we must remind them that they are part of a tribe that has their back.
• We can remind them that we need them and through the force of our love, we can help them stay aware that suicide causes massive collateral damage.
• We can encourage them to let their love and their trust be stronger than the fear or pride that sometimes prevents them from disclosing the extent of their suffering to those who are worthy of their trust.
The Marine Corps DSTRESS line is an anonymous Marine-to-Marine phone service. Call 1-877-476-7734 to speak anonymously with a live person if you are seeking help.
Shauna Springer, Ph.D., is senior director, suicide prevention initiatives, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
Mike Ergo, licensed clinical social worker, is a Marine Corps combat veteran and director, Rohnert Park Vet Center. He served in the Marine Corps infantry from 2001-2005 and deployed to Iraq twice.