In September 2019, three suicides in less than a week on board one aircraft carrier, the USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77), rattled the Navy and prompted the question of whether the current suicide prevention training course is enough. The suicide rate in the Navy more than doubled between 2006 and 2019.1 For every 100,000 service members, there were 20.1 suicide deaths—compared to the civilian rate of approximately 14 per 100,000 individuals in 2019.2
Naval professionals carry huge responsibilities as they fly aircraft, operate ships at sea, run nuclear power plants, and prepare for combat. We are all human, and at times need help with stress and anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy is essentially talk therapy, where a therapist works with a patient to identify toxic traits or thought processes that can impede growth, happiness, and mental well-being. The therapist helps the patient identify problems and respond to them effectively.3 By working through problems with a licensed practitioner, sailors can live better lives and become better professionals as well.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael M. Gilday said, “Mental health is absolutely critical to wellness, and shouldn’t be ignored and it shouldn’t be hidden.”4 Leaders’ messages are critical to removing the stigma that seeking mental health treatment is a sign of weakness, but the Navy still has a way to go. For example, according to The New York Times, sailors on board the George H. W. Bush were reluctant to ask for help because: (1) those who previously sought help were separated from the service; (2) they did not want to be viewed as trying to get out of their duty; or (3) their attempts to get counseling were ignored or viewed as unimportant.5
A Potential Solution
The Navy has started to tackle this problem. As described in the February 2021 Proceedings, a pilot program using VT-Sea on board the Navy’s Rota-based destroyers is being used to remotely treat sailors with acute mental health problems.6 This is a great start, especially for emerging situations that could endanger sailors’ lives and/or disrupt a ship’s mission and readiness.
In addition to dealing with acute, emergency mental health situations at sea, the Navy should consider developing an application that would allow sailors to access counseling on their smartphones when ashore or in port. The concept would build off the already developed Military OneSource counseling service. Instead of calling a phone number, sailors could download an app on their phones. After verifying their service and eligibility, they would be matched with a counselor best suited for their current needs. Counseling services would be offered through phone or video chat. Several civilian applications already exist that serve this exact purpose, but they are not covered by TriCare and can be costly. The Navy app would maintain the same level of confidentiality as an in-person counseling session and would have no impact on a sailor’s career. The chain of command would be notified of a sailor’s counseling sessions only when legal or military requirements apply.7
Fleetwide mental health requires more than just one training class per year on suicide prevention. A mental health counseling application that is covered by military benefits, easily accessible, and recommended by leaders would allow the Navy to help more sailors who need it. The easier it is for sailors to access benefits, the more likely they are to get help before they are in extremis and considering harming themselves or others.
1. Dave Philipps, “Three Suicides in One Navy Ship’s Crew Point to a Growing Problem,” The New York Times.
2. Philipps, “Three Suicides in One Navy Ship’s Crew Point to a Growing Problem.”
3. Mayo Clinic, “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Overview.”
4. Admiral Michael Gilday, USN, “Mental Health Awareness Month Statement,” U.S. Navy Press Office.
5. Philipps, “Three Suicides in One Navy Ship’s Crew Point to a Growing Problem.”
6. LT Olivia Peduzzi, USN, “The Promising Mental Health Pilot,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 147, no.2, (February 2021).
7. Military OneSource, “Non-medical Counseling.”