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Camp Pendleton Working To Combat Marine Suicides

Camp Pendleton Working To Combat Marine Suicides
For the last few years, the suicide rate among US Marines has been a concern for military leaders. In fact, suicide rates for members of the armed forces in general have been on the rise since 2004. Marine officials have been trying to reverse that trend with new programs and initiatives and training for officers.

For the last few years, the suicide rate among US Marines has been a concern for military leaders. In fact, suicide rates for members of the armed forces in general have been on the rise since 2004.

Marine officials have been trying to reverse that trend with new programs aimed at identifying Marines who are in emotional distress...and removing the stigma involved in seeking mental health services.

Guest: Kim DiSarro, prevention and education specialist with Marine Corps Counseling Services, Camp Pendleton.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. For the last few years, the suicide rate among U.S. marines has been a concern for military leaders. In fact, suicide rates for members of the armed forces in general have been on the rise since 2004. Marine officials have been trying to reverse that trend with new programs aimed at identifying marines who are in emotional stress and removing the sigma in seeking mental health services. Joining us to talk about the causes of marine suicides and how the corps is addressing the situation is my guest, Kim DiSarro, prevention and education specialist with Marine Corps counseling services at Camp Pendleton. And govern, Kim.

DISARRO: Good afternoon.

CAVANAUGH: If you're a marine or a member of a marine family, we'd love for you to call us to tell us what services are like for marines who are depressed or may be thinking about suicide. Have you ever known a marine who was going through a really bad depression? Give us a call with your stories if you would, 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. Now Kim, the Marine Corps as I've said has been very concerned about suicide rates over the last past years. Can you give us some ideas of the numbers we're talking about?

DISARRO: I think it's important to remember too that when we talk about, you know, suicide -- it's a complicated problem that we just are beginning to understand. It's in the last ten years since people have actually started to really look at the numbers. And our numbers actually have kind of matched civilian numbers. And what we did talk about is that between 2006, 2009, we did have some -- our numbers were higher than average, but our numbers have actually started to decline as of 2009. That was our highest year, and now they're starting to go down a little bit. We can say -- our numbers have reduced nearly 30% from 2009 to 2010. And so far our numbers for this year are actually below last year. That's a good thing.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk about some of the reasons that might have happened. But first of all, let's sort of try to identify what the Marine Corps has said are the Marines who are most in danger of either thinking about suicide or actually trying to commit suicide or carrying it out. Which marines are most in danger of that?

DISARRO: Well, they're really like I said, we're just beginning to understand and learn and get feedback from them and try to really understand the magnitude of the problem. There are a couple things that we do see that are associated with the Marines who do present to be suicidal or have suicidal ideation, which is the challenge that comes with being part of a marine family. The relationship challenges, the communication challenges. There's also five things that we see on a regular bases. Your legal and disciplinary problems, behavioral health diagnosis, financial problems, substance abuse, those tend to be five of the top stressors and things that we see that are contributing factors to someone's suicidal ideation or disposition at that time. It's also important to remember that just because feedbacks are having these 5 things it doesn't mean people go on to attempt suicide.

CAVANAUGH: Right. It's just a statistical at risk kind of thing.

DISARRO: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Now, do you find that marines just back from deployment might be most in need of help or about to be deployed? Is there any correlation there between depression, suicide ideation, and deployment of any kind?

DISARRO: There actually is not. We've studied the relationship between your PTSD and suicide and found that the overwhelming majority of people with PTSD don't go on to attempt suicide. Of the last hundred suicides we have had reported to us, only three showed evidence of PTSD. And with that being said, obviously there's a lot of stress for families when folks are just gearing up to go, there's a lot of anxiety for anybody.


DISARRO: Before they leave, getting everything taken care of, and worrying about, you know, is their family going to be okay here. And then when they come back, and I know that the Marine Corps specifically is working diligently to make sure and insure that people have eyes on folks 30 days out, 60 days out, 90 days out to just make sure that we're checking in with our folks to see the climate.

CAVANAUGH: That's interesting, Kim, you used the term eyes on folks. What does that mean?

DISARRO: We're doing a better job, I think, of taking a -- training our leadership, our marines to -- when I say eyes on them, just to know what to look for. Be better trained in these are signs and symptoms, not necessarily of suicide, but of voicing your concern that says, hey, you know, is everything schnook how can we help? I noticed that things -- you're acting a little different or you haven't been the same since this happened or whatever it is. Just to make sure they're more in touch with their folks.

CAVANAUGH: I want to invite our listeners once again to join this conversation if you'd lick to ask a question or if you have a story that you'd like to share with us. We're talking about marine depression and rates of marine suicide, and what the Marine Corps is doing to turn that around. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. Now, as I said, and as you've been saying, Kim, suicide prevention has become a priority for mental health services in the Marines. What have marine officials said about how important they take suicide prevention?

DISARRO: Well, you know, some of the things that we're hearing and that we hear is that, you know, we're really just kind of working on it, and again, we're trying to change the focus on prevention and stress control and readiness programs. And we're kind of trying to recreate some things and create some more supportive situations for folks in the way of programs and things that are available for the families and for them. They don't have a -- their new tag line for everything is that we never leave ray marine behind. We wouldn't do that in a combat zone, so you're definitely not going to do that here.

CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line. Edward is calling from mission valley. Good afternoon, Edward. Welcome to the show.

NEW SPEAKER: Hello. I'm a Vietnam veteran. I want to commend your efforts. Vi's question, during the Vietnam ear ark there was a lot of media hype about the high incidence of suicide among Vietnam veterans but then somebody finally did research comparing it to the general population who did not serve in Vietnam, and they found out that there wasn't really much difference. And I wonder if you have statistics on that now.

DISARRO: You know, unfortunately, I would like to say that I do. And I actually get this question a lot. But I think at the time period people weren't really tracking it. So it's really hard to do a comparison 'cause I would say probably even in the last 10 or 12-year system when we've started to really track it here.

CAVANAUGH: But you told us, Kim, that actually now that since the Marine Corps has been tracking suicides and attempted suicides, that most of that time from 2002 on, the corps was below the civilian rate per 100,000.


CAVANAUGH: It just sort of jumped up after about 2008.

DISARRO: Well, and we weren't necessarily below. We were at the same, you know, the same rate. We are now below.

CAVANAUGH: You're now below. Upon.

DISARRO: We are now below.


DISARRO: But yeah, you know, here at Pendleton, again, it's hard to kind of tell. It's a big challenge to try to get the data and to do the studies and that type of stuff. Especially for Vietnam veterans and that kind of stuff. If they don't report and identify themselves that way, you know?

CAVANAUGH: Right. I understand. They weren't keeping track the way you are now.

DISARRO: Yeah, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: We have another caller on the line. Janice is calling from Camp Pendleton. Hi, Janice. Jan.

RIH2: If you could turn down your radio, you're on a little bit of a delay so. So that's what you're hearing now instead of answering the question.

DISARRO: Oh, okay.



CAVANAUGH: Yes, you want to tell us a story?

NEW SPEAKER: Well, I just wanted to share in in my husband's command; he had a marine that presented as suicidal. He was going through a lot of difficulty. And I just thought that the command did a wonderful job of identifying this marine, making sure he got the assistance that he needed and was taken to the right folks immediately. And they really did as, I believe Kim said, had eyes on, and they were able to make sure that that marine got the help that he needed and continued to follow up with him even after the initial issue was resolved.

CAVANAUGH: Janice, thank you so much. That must be good to hear, Kim.

DISARRO: Yeah, definitely. We put a lot of effort into the programs and the support systems put around these folks, and it's always good to insure something period.

CAVANAUGH: What counseling services are available to troubled marines?

DISARRO: 92 there's a couple things that are in place. Obviously, we are counseling serves here on the base. And one of the things that we do is have licensed clinicians and folks that we offer to them, no appointment necessary, any time of day, obviously during fitness hours, if they could walk in, they don't need an appointment. And they will be seen by a counselor. We also just recently this year, they've piloted a program called a distress line. And what that does is it's a pilot program in the western U.S., and it's an anonymous line for folks to call in. It's by marines for marines. Dollar just means -- it is intended for marines and their families, are and the phone calls are actually answered by folks who are active duty who are -- they're active duty folks, also folks who are former marines so that they can relate more to them. But then there's also on that line a licensed clinician just in case something comes up that they need some support with that is out of the lane of the Marine. But it is 100% confidential to them, something that's being rolled out for the Marines and their families as well. There's also -- they've just now done a never leave a marine behind suicide prevention education seer series. Which is what they're trying to do to have it so injuries just knowledge is power. Making sure you're getting the right information to all of these marines so they can best handle the situation just like the caller said, there they are doing the right thing and making sure these folks are taken care of. And then there's also we have annually, according to what they refer to, is their Marine Corps order which is like their laws, says that they have to have a minimum of an annual training on suicide prevention, once a year.

CAVANAUGH: Got it. I'm speaking with Kim DiSarro, a prevention and education specialist with Marine Corps counseling services at Camp Pendleton. And we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Jim is calling us from Malibu. Hi, Jim, welcome to the show.

NEW SPEAKER: Thanks a lot for taking my call. Yeah, I just had this idea because I heard in World War II, a GI or a marine, they would go for a week waiting for the ship to come across, then they would get on the ship and they would have this whole decompression thing of being with their fellow marines on a ship, two weeks across the ocean. Marines now leave Fallujah, get on a plane, get off the plane, and their wife and kids are way waiting. And my idea is that the last month of a 12-month thing, they go to a base, they come back to the U.S. and for a month, they're in a base. Just like military, but they get to talk with each other, there are psychiatrists there, and at the end of it, there's this kind of a sweet thing that I added was they would have a dinner with their wife and the kids, and they would come. But they have no place to decompress. There is no troop ship coming back that they can talk with each other. Oh, you were in Fallujah? What group were you in?

CAVANAUGH: No, I understand, Jim. Yeah.

NEW SPEAKER: And the last thing, they're home with their wife, a broom falls in the kitchen, they jump up to grab their gun. Well, two days ago, they needed to.


NEW SPEAKER: So anyway, one month at the end, and I'd love to hear what she has to say about that.

CAVANAUGH: Terrific, Jim. Thank you for the the call. What do you think, Kim?

DISARRO: You know, I think in a perfect world. But I also think that there's a lot of fantastic options and things that they're looking at for just what you're talking about, which is that we want to make sure the unit cohesion is maintained. We don't want them to come back and all of a sudden feel like they're alone. What they are starting to do is when they do come back, they have to go through all these trainings and stuff to check in, and that kind of stuff. And they do come back and meet up with their families, but they aren't released to go on leave for a little while after. Just to make sure that people, again, have eyes on them for a little bit. And then it's kind of unit specific. We have some units that have done, especially with the smaller units that have been able to put together a weekend for them to kind of decompress with their families and just kind of enjoy each other for a little bit. It's unit specific. And again, I can only speak to what Pendleton is doing. But it's a great idea.

CAVANAUGH: Kim, I remember when members of Camp Pendleton base third battalion marine regiment, they returned after suffering the highest casualties of any battalion in Afghanistan. And a special program was initiated. And they said at the time it might seven as a program that might want to be replicated throughout the country. Do we know how that's working out?

DISARRO: I don't. I wish I could speak to it. I really don't have anything to add to that. I know that they did do a lot of -- put a lot of supportive programs in place for them when they did come back. But I don't know the extent of what they're actually carried out.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you told us that the suicide rate actually has dropped by 30% since its peek in 2009. To we have any tracking available about whether or not the suicide prevention and mental health programs that have been put in place have actually worked on that? That's the reason that those numbers have gone town?

DISARRO: I would like to think yes.


DISARRO: Obviously. But I do think that it's too early, and the subject matter is too complex.

CAVANAUGH: Gotcha. I want to tell you, Cameron is on the line from San Diego. Welcome to the show.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. How are you doing?

CAVANAUGH: Just fine.

NEW SPEAKER: I was a Marine Corps officer for almost 12 years. I served in the infantry; I did a tour in the horn of Africa, and three tours in Iraq. And I have seen, and then I asked for help, and spent 18 months in the Navy medical system. So I've been a commander of marines, and I've also been a patient in the medical system. And I can tell you, a lot of things they say are happening are not actually happening.


NEW SPEAKER: Well, for example, a lot of the things are kept to commanders' discretion. And I have seen commanders, I have heard commanders say out of their own mouths say, and these are my peers, say things such as PTSD is BS. It doesn't exist. There is nothing that has happened in Iraq or Afghanistan that warrants temperature I have heard them say things like there is no such thing as alcoholism. Which is the second and third order effect of PTSD. They say that people drink because they want to drink. And the only administrative mechanisms that are in place in order to deal with marines that start having these symptoms of PTSD are administrative and punitive.

CAVANAUGH: And what years are you talking about here that you heard officials, marine officers say that?

NEW SPEAKER: 2009. And 2010.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Now, Kim have things changed?

DISARRO: No, I haven't seen a change at all.

CAVANAUGH: I want Kim DiSarro, from Camp Pendleton, I'd also like her to weigh in on this. Cameron, thank you very much for the call. Thank you for the are is it. You heard the story, Kim, what's your response?

DISARRO: My first thing I would say, I'm so is sorry that that was his story. I wish it had been different. But I can only say that it's a work in progress. It's a big business. It's a large group of people that we're trying to change attitudes and change how things work. And it's not going to happen over night. But I am hopeful that the little base steps that we're taking and some of the big programs that they're supporting and rallying around folks, that it's a work in progress. And my hope is that the story that that gentleman just told, nobody else has to tell. And I know that's in a perfect world, but I'm casual optimistic that we're moving in the right correction.

CAVANAUGH: Right. I we are out of time right now. I want to thank you very much for speaking with us. I've been speaking with Kim DiSarro with the Marine Corps counseling services at Camp Pendleton. Thank you very much.

DISARRO: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.