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Suicide Prevention is an “All Hands on Deck” Evolution

by Adm. Daryl Caudle, Commander U.S. Fleet Forces Command
27 September 2023 Between 2017 and 2023, the Navy lost 452 active component sailors and 62 reserve component sailors to suicide. While our suicide rate is below the comparable civilian rate, we must and can do better. The Navy’s efforts must be robust, designed and implemented effectively to help Sailors across the spectrum of care in order to reduce stress, to feel more connected, and to be better supported including their families.

Our awareness of the challenges our sailors face and the respective countermeasures cannot be applied just during Suicide Prevention Month in September, but every month. The recent suicide deaths here underscore the urgency of this issue and the need for persistent solutions.

We must cultivate an environment in which sailors have a strong sense of connectedness and can approach their leadership during times of stress and ask for help without the fear of reprisal. By nurturing a culture of open communication, we can break down barriers that discourage individuals from seeking meaningful and proactive support.

To combat the problem of suicide most effectively, we must design our methodology across a continuum of awareness and care. This is an “all hands on deck” approach. Applying this philosophy, our methodologies must be tiered using programs and solutions that span various levels of intrusiveness, understanding and education of symptoms and causes, as well as direct and indirect resources that improve our sailor’s quality of service.

Tactical Level: The tactical level is built around the individual sailor’s ability to be more resilient, in addition to relying on shipmate and family interaction and intervention. To get ahead of issues that may result in destructive outcomes, our Navy is implementing a deliberate strategy to strengthen mental and physical health, and increase resiliency of the mind, body and spirit. Through initiatives such as Warrior Toughness, a holistic and prevention-based framework, sailor, unit and organizational performance is maximized while improving sailor trust, toughness, mental health and connectedness. The focus is on providing concepts and skills to enable peak performance and make sailors more resilient and ready for the fleet. We integrated this program into the curricula of Recruit Training Command, Officer Training Command Newport, the U.S. Naval Academy and NROTC units with the goal of having instantiations of these programs rolled out fleet wide.

Operational Level: Mental health is health. Operational level measures are designed to ensure sailors have the unfettered opportunity to seek and access the mental health support they require in a timely manner. Therefore, we have significantly increased embedded mental health providers and resources for sailors to use where and when needed with the goal of removing process barriers and organizational friction. The recently released Mental Health Playbook assists Navy leaders in preventing, mitigating and/or addressing mental health issues within their commands, and includes a Mental Health Roadmap that provides a concise list of resources available and actions to take. We also implemented the Brandon Act, which empowers and directs commanders and military supervisors E-6 and above with the clear and accountable responsibility to assist sailors who specifically request referrals for mental health evaluations to include scheduling appointments and any required follow-ups and to do so with respect to privacy and without fear of reprisal or stigma. 

Strategic Level: We must seek to improve the quality of service of our sailors in order to preemptively reduce stress, lower the day-to-day friction in their lives, improve their competency, empower their confidence, and ensure we optimize their total well-being. The strategic level of effort is designed to get left of the problems our sailors encounter in order to drive suicide contemplation or ideation to the absolute lowest levels possible. To accomplish this goal, the Navy is setting a new course for quality of service, which is the combination of quality of life (sailor and family experiences outside the workplace) and quality of work (sailor experience in the workplace). Quality of service initiatives will be prioritized to accelerate improvements for sailors at our public and private shipyards, which have shown to have higher suicide risk than our operational fleet. The Navy is working to refurbish and modernize facilities, streamline access to their ship, provide the tools and training necessary to improve efficiency while building healthier command climates, and providing sailors not in the duty section with housing options away from the industrial environment.

We cannot forget that a significant number of suicides involve firearms, with more than 60% of cases in the last several years involving guns. Consequently, I am a strong advocate for implementing a "Lethal Means Safety” program within our commands, in which sailors are encouraged to always have their weapons unloaded and locked as well as temporarily storing them outside their home during heightened stress periods.
To support this initiative, I also urge leaders on the deckplates to promote the use of free gun locks provided by the Fleet and Family Support Center. This small yet impactful step could offer someone in distress a crucial window of time to reconsider their decision.

To provide immediate assistance, several resources are available to sailors. Perhaps the most important is the new 988+1 Suicide & Crisis Line, which offers a rapid response to individuals facing mental health emergencies. Additional resources include Navy Chaplain Care, Military One Source and Real Warriors Psychological Health Resource Center Live Chat, which operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to provide critical support to those in need.

The Navy is committed to tackling this critical issue head-on, fostering a supportive environment in which sailors feel connected with one another, seek help without fear, and readily have access to mental health resources.

I will continue to be relentless with my campaign to sustain our focus on the belief that suicide prevention must be a year-round priority, and not just recognized in September.

Adm. Daryl Caudle is the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, headquartered in Norfolk, Va.