Collaboration announced to help prevent military suicide

UMMS joins forces with National Guard, Veterans’ Services to address health needs of military

By James Fessenden and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

November 09, 2012

UMass Medical School, the Massachusetts National Guard and the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services have joined forces to increase resiliency and help prevent suicide among Massachusetts National Guard members. Seeking to address the unique health care needs of National Guard personnel and the increased rates of suicide among U.S. military personnel, UMMS behavioral health faculty will collaborate with the National Guard and Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services to implement suicide prevention strategies specifically designed for military personnel.

“UMass Medical School and the Massachusetts National Guard, working closely with the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services, are taking action to help prevent suffering and tragedies for military members and their families,” said Chancellor Michael F. Collins. “Working together, we will build a collaborative program that will not only help address the unique health needs of today’s members of the Massachusetts National Guard, but which also can serve as a model for addressing the needs of military members of all branches, as well as veterans, across the nation.”

“Mental health issues, including suicide, are on the rise nationally in our military and we need to increase coordination amongst various partners to bridge gaps between our civilian and military care systems,” said Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, chair of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Veterans’ Services. “I applaud UMass Medical School for working in close collaboration with our administration and the Massachusetts National Guard to help address suicide prevention and the health needs of our guard and reserve members.”

Nationally, suicide rates among active and non-active military personnel are on the rise. During the first nine months of this year there have been 247 suspected suicides among Army active and reserve duty personnel according to a Department of Defense report. In July, a record 38 confirmed or suspected suicides were recorded, including 26 incidents among active-duty soldiers and 12 among National Guard or Reserve soldiers who were not on active-duty.

Recognizing that mental and behavioral health issues, including suicide, have been on the rise among members of the military nationally—and that members of the Massachusetts National Guard are as much at risk as their national counterparts—Adjutant General L. Scott Rice and his leadership command approached UMMS to explore ways to apply the expertise of the medical school’s behavioral and mental health faculty toward the needs of their soldiers and airmen.

Early partnership efforts between the institutions have included the joint planning and implementation of resiliency building and suicide prevention training by UMMS faculty for Massachusetts National Guard personnel, including suicide intervention officers and master resiliency trainers. UMMS and the Department of Veterans’ Services also participated with the Massachusetts National Guard in a state-wide stand down this past September focused on suicide prevention.

“Through our partnership with UMass Medical School, we are able to take better care of soldiers and airmen," said Maj. Gen. Rice. “In September, we held a statewide suicide prevention training event using a program designed by UMass Medical School faculty and were able to identify soldiers in need of immediate assistance.”

Too often, though, mental and behavioral health issues go unreported and untreated because of the stigma in the military culture associated with seeking help or a lack of knowledge about available health services. Moving forward, the Massachusetts National Guard and UMMS will collaborate on training guard personnel to serve as a peer support network to help overcome these barriers. These peer support members will also be trained in the complex array of regulations and requirements that often prove to be a barrier for those seeking help.

The partnership will also seek to engage and educate civilian medical personnel, who are often the primary medical providers for National Guard and reserve members, but are often unaware of the unique medical, social, psychological and cultural issues impacting military personnel. Medical personnel could be trained in the intricacies of military language and acronyms, as well as the myriad state, federal and military regulations that often impede access to services. Additional training in military culture could also be provided to civilian medical personnel. By doing so, the partnership will be helping prepare medical personnel to be responsive to the unique health needs of National Guard members.

“Massachusetts is the national leader in veterans’ services for many reasons, but none more so than the strong collaborations we have made to maximize our resources and provide world-class comprehensive benefits to our service members and their families,” said Secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services Coleman Nee. “Today is a great example of how state institutions can work seamlessly for the betterment of those that serve this nation.”

“Suicide prevention is a matter of life and death. And suicide can be prevented,” said Barry N. Feldman, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and director of Psychiatry Programs in Public Safety at UMass Medical School. “This partnership is about helping our military personnel get the care and services they need and deserve so we can help prevent such tragedies.”

As part of the Joining Forces initiative, a comprehensive national initiative to mobilize all sectors of society to give service members and their families the opportunities and support they have earned, UMass Medical School has joined more than 100 medical schools around the country in mobilizing its integrated missions in education, research and clinical care to train the nation's physicians to meet the health care needs of the military and their families. Recognizing the sacrifice and commitment of military service members, veterans and their families, UMass Medical School’s suicide prevention partnership with the Massachusetts National Guard and the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services is one of the many programs at UMMS dedicated to helping veterans.

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