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SAMHSA’s Award-Winning Newsletter
September/October 2008, Volume 16, Number 5 

Commitment to Suicide Prevention, Mental Health

Major General Mark Graham and his wife Carol Graham have a personal commitment to suicide prevention.

The Grahams lost their son Kevin, 21, when he was a senior ROTC scholarship student. Kevin died by suicide after he stopped taking his depression medication. Seven months later, they lost their son Jeffrey, 24, an Army Second Lieutenant, in Iraq. His vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED).

General Graham commands the Army’s Division West and Fort Carson in Colorado. Mrs. Graham works at the national level to raise awareness about the dangers of suicide and untreated depression. She also serves the board of directors for the Suicide Prevention Action Network.

Excerpts follow from their conference presentations on August 11, 2008, at Paving the Road Home: Returning Veterans and Behavioral Health.

General Graham: We are here to talk about the stigma surrounding mental health that not only permeates our military, but our entire culture. Many of our soldiers and families live off-post, so we must have a network of care that reaches beyond our military installations and VA centers.

Our soldiers sometimes have wounds you cannot see. Some people come forward about mental health problems and yet, so many do not—why? Are they afraid for their careers? Embarrassed? Maybe even ashamed. Will someone think he is less of a man or she less of a woman or a soldier?

During this period of persistent conflict, I can think of few subjects more important to discuss (for parallel structure) than behavioral health. To me, this has to be one of our top priorities.

There was no breaking news when our son Kevin died by suicide at the age of 21. The pain of losing Kevin was no different from losing Jeff. One son died by his own hand; one son died by the enemy’s hand. We have lost both our sons. When my daughter Melanie looked at me and said, ‘I don’t want to be an only child,’ it broke my heart. What’s a dad to do?

When Kevin died, we were stationed in Korea, and we blamed ourselves for not recognizing the serious warning signs that Kevin’s depression was a true medical illness and not just a sad feeling.

For years we had talked to our children about alcohol, drugs, sex, and even strangers, just about anything we could think of to keep our kids safe and healthy. But our ignorance thinking that all it took to fight depression was a prayer, a proper diet, exercise, and a good night’s sleep, kept us from getting Kevin the best medical care he needed.

People are our support mechanisms. People sustain us when things around our lives appear to be crumbling. People help others by intervening, taking action, and not worrying whether that person will be upset.

So, what can we do?

One of the dangers of not taking action is the very real possibility that more lives will be lost. From our tragedies, my wife Carol, our daughter Melanie, and I have come to realize that in order to survive, we have to use our brokenness to reach out and to give others hope. It has given us direction and revealed enormous purpose for our lives.

We have pledged to use Kevin’s death to raise awareness in the military of the dangers of untreated depression, to remind our leaders about the real injuries of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and TBI [traumatic brain injury], and to shed light on mental health issues—some brought on by war and some brought on by natural occurrences that deserve our same level of attention.

Carol Graham: As a mother losing two children, I feel it’s almost like a bipolar experience. When we lost Kevin, we felt like the biggest failures as parents, and when we lost Jeffrey, we were elevated to gold-star status. We’ve experienced the stigma, the shame, the guilt, along with the honor and respect that goes with a hero that dies trying to save his platoon.

We’re searching for a balance in there and also seeking to comfort the other military families going through the same things.

I have a master’s degree in counseling, but I did not know that suicide is the number two cause of death in college-age kids. What’s staggering to me is that’s the age of many of our soldiers. We were of course very broken when Kevin died, and we began setting up the programs for suicide prevention on college campuses. Connecting with survivors helped me not to feel so alone.

People would tell me their family members took their own lives. But out in the world they tell people their loved ones had heart attacks or were in car wrecks. It’s easier not to have to deal with the embarrassment and the shame and the judgment.

There are things we can do. We can ask the question—Mark and I didn’t know that, we didn’t know to ask. Maybe we’re scared to ask if we think someone is at risk for taking their own life. If you do suspect, care for them and stay with them.

Honestly, I think people’s legs break and their backs break and so psychologically they can break. I had a soldier tell me one time that he wished he’d just been burned all over or lost a limb because that would have been so much easier to explain than to try to explain the anxiety, fear, and suicidal thoughts that were going through his mind.

I just want to leave you with a couple of words our son said that we didn’t get. We didn’t hear him. We think these were red flags. Maybe some of you won’t miss them the next time you might hear them.

When Kevin started taking the medication, he said, “Do you know that depression is an illness and not just a sad feeling?” And I think we all know that it’s definitely a real illness and I guess we thought it was like taking an antibiotic—that he’d get better.

Another thing he said was, “I guess guys are just supposed to suck it up.” In our culture, we do give that signal. He also said, “So I’m supposed to take a pill the rest of my life to be happy?” I didn’t really have an answer, but now I know the answer is, “Yeah, maybe.” We wouldn’t tell someone on insulin to just stop taking the medication.

When Kevin died, we were stationed in Korea, and we blamed ourselves for not recognizing the serious warning signs that Kevin’s depression was a true medical illness and not just a sad feeling.

For years we had talked to our children about alcohol, drugs, sex, and even strangers, just about anything we could think of to keep our kids safe and healthy. But our ignorance thinking that all it took to fight depression was a prayer, a proper diet, exercise, and a good night’s sleep, kept us from getting Kevin the best medical care he needed.

People are our support mechanisms. People sustain us when things around our lives appear to be crumbling. People help others from committing suicide by intervening, taking action, and not worrying whether that person will be upset with them.

So, what can we do?

I believe the danger of not discussing and taking action is the real possibility that more lives will be lost. From our tragedies, my wife Carol, our daughter Melanie, and I have come to realize that in order to survive, we have to use our brokenness to reach out and to give others hope. It has given us direction and revealed enormous purpose for our lives.

We have pledged to use Kevin’s death to raise awareness in the military of the dangers of untreated depression, to remind our leaders about the real injuries of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and TBI [traumatic brain injury], and to shed light on mental health issues—some brought on by war and some brought on by natural occurrences that deserve our same level of attention.

Carol Graham: As a mother losing two children, I feel it’s almost like a bipolar experience. When we lost Kevin, we felt like the biggest failures as parents, and when we lost Jeffrey, we were elevated to gold-star status. We’ve experienced the stigma, the shame, the guilt, along with the honor and respect that goes with a hero that dies saving his platoon.

We’re trying to find a balance in there and also trying to comfort the other military families going through the same things.

I have a master’s degree in counseling, but I did not know that suicide is the number two cause of death in college-age kids. What’s staggering to me is that’s the age of most of our soldiers. We were of course very broken when Kevin died, and we began setting up the programs for suicide prevention on college campuses. Connecting with survivors helped me not to feel so alone.

People would tell me their family members took their own lives. But out in the world they tell people their loved ones had heart attacks or were in car wrecks. It’s easier not to have to deal with the embarrassment and the shame and the judgment.

There are things we can do. We can ask the question—Mark and I didn’t know that, we didn’t know to ask. Maybe we’re scared to ask if we think someone is at risk for taking their own life. If you do suspect, care for them and stay with them.

Honestly, I think people’s legs break and their backs break and so psychologically they can break. I had a soldier tell me one time that he wished he’d just been burned all over or lost a limb because that would have been so much easier to explain than to try to explain the anxiety, fear, and suicidal thoughts that were going through his mind.

I just want to leave you with a couple of words our son said that we didn’t get. We didn’t hear him. We think these were red flags. Maybe some of you won’t miss them the next time you might hear them.

When Kevin started taking the medication, he said, “Do you know that depression is an illness and not just a sad feeling?” And I think we all know that it’s definitely a real illness and I guess we thought it was like taking an antibiotic—that he’d get better.

Another thing he said was, “I guess guys are just supposed to suck it up.” In our culture, we do give that signal. He also said, “So I’m supposed to take a pill the rest of my life to be happy?” I didn’t really have an answer, but now I know the answer is, “Yeah, maybe.” We wouldn’t tell someone on insulin to just stop taking the medication.

A resource locator is available to link veterans to medical centers and community-based outpatient clinics.



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