ASU professor tapped by Department of Defense to help prevent military suicides
Rebecca Blais named to Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee
More than four times as many military service personnel and veterans have died by suicide than as a result of military operations since 2001.
The rates of death by suicide among military personnel have also been increasing, and in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress mandated the creation of an independent assessment of the issue. On March 22, Lloyd J. Austin III, the secretary of defense, announced the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee.
The committee of 10 includes clinical psychologists, epidemiologists, social workers, doctors, retired military and a chaplain. The group has expertise in suicide ideation and mortality, mental health disorders, substance use, sexual assault and weapon safety.
One of the clinical psychologists is Rebecca Blais, associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University. Her research studies the link between military sexual trauma and suicide and how to best support military service personnel who have experienced sexual violence.
“Exposure to sexual trauma in the military is one of the biggest risks for death by suicide. A service person who has been exposed to sexual trauma in the military is four times more likely to experience suicidal ideation — thoughts of suicide — than someone who has been exposed to combat trauma,” Blais said.
“Dr. Blais was specifically requested to contribute to this mission based on her critical expertise in working with the military,” said Tim Hoyt, deputy director for force resiliency in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. “She has a nuanced understanding of the multitude of risk factors faced by the men and women in uniform, and we look forward to her recommendations as a member of the committee.”
Over the next several months, Blais will be traveling a lot with the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee. The committee meets at least once a month at the Pentagon. The group will also complete nine site visits at locations including Camp Humphreys in the Republic of Korea, the Naval Air Station North Island in California, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and three locations in Alaska that have experienced increases in active duty personnel dying by suicide.
“These nine locations include each of the military services and a wide variety of geographic locations where service members are stationed,” Hoyt said.
During the site visits, the committee will conduct focus groups with service members and military leadership as well as individual interviews, and will confidentially survey service personnel.
“We plan to stay on base as much as possible so we can get a 360-degree perspective. We also will be available outside of formal interviews and meetings — like hanging out in the gym or at a coffee kiosk for the day — to give people the opportunity to come talk about topics they might not be comfortable saying in front of others,” said Blais, who understands the importance of connecting with service members in unique environments to facilitate open communication. She has conducted therapy for veterans while downhill skiing and working on motorcycles.
In addition to the site visits, the committee will conduct an exhaustive review of suicide prevention and response programs, and will work to identify factors that can help prevent death by suicide.
“Military sexual trauma is just one concern,” Blais said. “We will also be looking at financial concerns, housing and neighborhood safety, and food security. Current issues with inflation are exacerbating an already challenging living arrangement for many. We will also consider how remote or isolated a base is, and broadly how military culture views and discusses suicide.”
By Dec. 20, the committee will deliver a report to the secretary of defense that makes recommendations for policy changes for the military community at large and also for the specific sites that were visited. The findings and recommendations of the commmittee will be presented to Congress in February 2023 and will be implemented by the Office of Force Resiliency.
"Suicide within the military is such an important issue, one that affects so many lives," said Steven Neuberg, Foundation Professor and chair of the ASU Department of Psychology. "Professor Blais has considerable evidence-based expertise and insights into this problem, and we're happy that our department can contribute to solutions through her service on this important independent review committee.”
Military personnel, veterans or their loved ones who are experiencing thoughts of suicide may contact the Military/Veterans Crisis Line, a confidential support available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1), via text at 838255, or chat at www.veteranscrisisline.net.