Federal Practitioner talked with Jacqueline Garrick, LCSW-C, one of the authors of “Suicide-Related Ideation and Behaviors in Military Women,” in Women at War. The chapter delves into the issue of suicide for women in the military and addresses how the needs of military women are different from both active-duty male counterparts and women civilians.
According to Ms. Garrick, women face unique challenges and barriers to care, and the surface of this topic as it relates to military women has just begun to be explored.
Federal Practitioner: Why did you decide to focus on suicide-related ideation in military women?
Ms. Jacqueline Garrick: In order to better understand the presenting challenges that military women face related to an increase risk for suicidal ideation and behavior, we needed to cast a wider net rather than looking at those who died by suicide. Since those who died are a smaller population within the military, we needed to look beyond to those who attempted suicide and to those who thought about it, so we could better understand all of those contributing factors.
FP: Why do women in the military more than their male counterparts face higher rates of suicide?
JG: In the chapter, we documented that military women attributed their stress within the last year to being away from family and friends, changes in their workload responsibilities, family or personal responsibilities, a permanent change of station, problems with coworkers, and being deployed. In addition, a lifetime history of forced sexual intercourse, illegal drug use (other than cannabis), and exposure to violence were risk factors for suicide ideation. We also noted that military women who were more apt to use firearms compared with their civilian counterparts—which has an increased fatality probability—were also more likely to be “older, married, and white; residing in areas with higher rates of firearm availability; having an acute crisis; having experienced the death of a relative or friend; being depressed; and having relationship problems” as contributing factors.
Yet, there is less research paid to those contributing factors that lead women to die by suicide, resulting in less clinical understanding and expertise to deal with their issues when they do come in for treatment. Women have testified to the fact that they are often not treated as “real veterans” and they are not believed about their combat experiences or sexual trauma by clinicians who are not properly trained to assess and treat their concerns.
FP: What can be done to help lower the risk of women in the military dying by suicide?
JG: First, prevention and resilience programs across the armed forces tend to be more focused on male service members and their learning needs than on the women in uniform. Training materials and modalities should be reviewed to access their learnability for women and target their challenges. For example, peer support and mentor programs that incorporate women’s issues would be helpful in getting women to identify their stressors early and have a forum to problem-solve and make decisions based on those considerations.
Second, medical and mental health providers need to have a better understanding of women in uniform so that they can treat their unique needs in an environment that recognizes and respects their service. Clinical training in female military cultural competencies should be incorporated into the core curriculum.
FP: Is there need for more research?
JG: Yes, as the number of women in the military continues to grow and the occupational specialties that are available to them expand, the services need to incorporate the skills and abilities that women bring to the profession of arms in a manner that enhances the military mission. Research that helps the military understand the advantages to having a more diverse force—women who can go places in the world that men cannot and look at challenges with a different lens—enhances what the services can accomplish. However, ensuring that such a career path for the women is properly guided will take research into ensuring that their resilience has been facilitated and protected and their mental health needs addressed.
FP: Is there anything else you would like to add?
JG: Although much of Women at War identifies and outlines the issues the DoD and VA should address, the role women have played in the history of this nation should not be overlooked. Women in the military and women veterans have also proven to be great leaders who have broken barriers, overcome adversity and disability, advocated for others, raised children, and given back to society.