On September 22, 2015, The Institute of World Politics welcomed Ms. Kim Ruocco for a lecture entitled “Suicide in the Military: Why and What Leaders Can Do.”
She started her lecture by stating: “We live in a culture where even in the civilian community, mental illness is highly stigmatized and very misunderstood.“ She noted that mental illness in the military is often highly disregarded and seen as a weakness, which is something that has to change.
She continued by sharing with her audience some statistics related to military suicide. For example, “The National Institute for Mental Health reports that in 2013, 18.5% of American adults over 18 had been diagnosed with a mental illness in the last year. That’s 43.8 million Americans, and that does not include drug or alcohol related disorders. According to the Army STARRS Study, 25.1% of soldiers surveyed met the criteria for a mental disorder in the past 30 days. In the study of new soldiers for the Army STARRS, 38.7 % reported having had one or more of the DSM IV disorders in their lifetime. Given these statistics, you would think that there would be an expectation that a proportion of the population will need mental health care. You would think that this would be especially true for our troops who are exposed to combat and dangerous training.“
She proceeded to mention psychologist Thomas Joiner’s theory called “The interpersonal psychological theory of suicidal behavior.“ She explained that there are two types of states in this theory. First there is the state called “perceived burdensomeness,“ which is when a person may feel that their problems have become so bad that everyone would be better of without them. The second state, referred to as “thwarted belongingness,“ consists of someone feeling that they are no longer a valuable part of the group. She continued by mentioning: “This is particularly difficult when belonging to a group is very important to a person or a part of their identity.“
Ms. Ruocco also shared her own story about her husband’s suicide. “His father was a gunner in World War II, and he had several Uncles who were Marines. As the youngest, John worked hard to live up to his brothers, Uncles and his Dad.“Despite having many conflicts in his life at the time, Maj. Ruocco’s dream had always been to join the Marine Corps, so he did. After multiple injuries and obstacles, he managed to graduate top in his class and afterwards was assigned to fly Cobras on the East Coast.
Ms. Ruocco recalled, “He especially admired and respected the enlisted Marines. He wanted to learn everything he could from them in order to be the best leader he could. He also had several higher-ranking marines whom he aspired to be like. He worked hard to prove himself, which included working longer hours and volunteering for things that others didn’t want to do.“
During the 90’s, in New River Air Statin, there were many training accidents where pilots and marines were killed. Major Ruocco was hit hard by those incidents and the only thing he could think about now was not letting his marines down. He started suffering from depression, and he refused to look for help, because he would “seem weak.“ He got better for some time, but eventually relapsed. Unfortunately, there was little Ms. Ruocco could do to avoid the incident her family had to go through, and every day since then, she speculates on all the aspects of life with and without her husband. She reminded her listeners about psychologist Joiner and connected his idea with the story. “As John said to me several times, “everyone would be better off without me.“ According to Joiner, this is called “burdensomeness.“
Close to the end of her remarks, Ms. Ruocco posed this question: So what can leaders do? And her answer, based on her own experiences, was: “Mental health and physical health should be considered the same in importance, examination and treatment. There should be an expectation that there will be a time in one’s career when you may need to get treatment. A Service member who has been exposed to the ugliness of war should not have to ask for help; they should be told that it is expected in order to be physically and mentally fit for duty. This should not negatively impact a career.“
She also gave leaders some tips on what to do to help soldiers who are in distress: (1) be authentic, (2) be vulnerable, (3) be available, (4) be creative, (5) be compassionate, and (6) be communicative. She closed her lecture by offering all the help she could and mentioned some places you could go to if you ever found yourself with war trauma. “If you are suffering please get help. The National crisis line is 1-800-273-8255, the Vets4Warriors is at 1-855-838-8255. If you are grieving the death of a loved one on the military, please call TAPS 24/7 at 800-959-8277.
Kim Ruocco is the Chief External Relations Officer for Suicide prevention and Postvention for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). Ms. Ruocco is an international public speaker who has a unique combination of personal and professional experience, education and training that provides a comprehensive understanding of suicide prevention and postvention. In her role as Director of Postvention programs for TAPS, Ms. Ruocco developed comprehensive, peer-based programs that provided specific care to all those grieving a death by suicide in the military. Ms. Ruocco holds a BA in Human Services and Psychology from the University of Massachusetts and a Masters degree in Clinical Social Work from Boston University. She is also the surviving widow of Marine Corp Major John Ruocco, who died by suicide in 2005.