Suicide Is an All-Too-Common Problem Among Military Populations. We’re Working to Change That.

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The mental health challenges faced by active-duty, reserve, and veteran military populations have been highly publicized in recent years, largely due to the climbing rates of death by suicide in military families. According to data from the Department of Defense, suicides among active-duty service members has been increasing since 2011, and a study from Brown University found that 30,177 active-duty personnel and veterans who served in the military after 9/11 have died by suicide.

These troubling statistics speak volumes about the mental health challenges that military personnel and their families are grappling with, which include concerns like Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), substance abuse, interpersonal violence, and depression. While combat and deployments are linked to increased risks for these mental health conditions, general military service, as well as separation from the military, can also lead to difficulties.

Unfortunately, there is often a stigma associated with admitting to feeling the effects of mental health issues and seeking help, particularly for those in the military.

Two labs housed within the  College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky are seeking to change this narrative and address mental health in the military head-on. The Military Behavioral Health Lab (MBH) is focused on generating empirical knowledge and testing clinical interventions to address mental health and wellness issues that affect active-duty, reserve, and veteran military populations and their families. The lab builds on CoSW’s considerable expertise in working with military populations, supporting service members and their families by addressing the barriers they may face when deciding to seek help.

In recent years, the CoSW has undertaken numerous military behavioral health (MBH) initiatives. In October 2016, a partnership was established with the Department of Defense (DoD to) offer a one-of-a-kind master’s degree. A satellite site was created within the Army Medical Department Center and School at Fort Sam Houston. Today, 70% of incoming Army social work officers hold a UK diploma.

One of the first projects that the lab completed after launching in 2019 looked at employing Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans. Results demonstrated the positive impact that techniques such as concentration on breath, mindful awareness of physical experience, and self-compassion had on alleviating PTSD symptoms. In addition to research, the Military Behavioral Health Lab provides CoSW students with the opportunity to partner with faculty members to examine an array of behavioral health topics, as well as educate them about career opportunities within the DoD and Veterans Affairs (VA), which is the world’s largest employer of social workers.

Also on the forefront of examining military mental health and its influence on suicide rates is the Suicide Prevention and Exposure Lab (SPEL), which recently concluded a study that was funded by the Military Suicide Research Consortium. This project examined suicide exposure in the Kentucky Army National Guard, and the experience of military helping professionals (such as social workers, psychologists, & chaplains) in working with people who die by suicide.

Each participant in the study was asked about suicide exposure and how it impacted both their work and home lives. The results of the study will be released in the near future.

SPEL researchers continue to establish studies that explore the factors contributing to suicide among military populations, along with clinical social work education related to suicide.

More projects focused on addressing mental health issues for military members and their families are in the works for FY 24, as both labs continue to examine the most effective methods for improving overall health, wellness, and outcomes.

While suicide and mental health issues remain a complex phenomenon worldwide, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work is uniquely committed to developing techniques to address these issues through intentional and innovative approaches to research and intervention.

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For 85 years, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work (CoSW) has been a leader in social work education. As a college, we promote community and individual well-being through translational research and scholarship, exemplary teaching, and vital community engagement. We are committed to the people and social institutions throughout Kentucky, the nation, and the world. Like the University, CoSW is an organization that cultivates a diverse academic community characterized by interpersonal fairness and social justice. We are fiercely committed to developing outstanding social work professionals — leaders who will serve individuals, families, and communities through innovative and effective practices that are guided by cultural competency, systematic ethical analysis, and a keen and pragmatic understanding of the human condition.