Would an Anti-Self-Harm Oath Reduce Veteran Suicide?

Veteran suicide is a national tragedy. Every day, 20 veterans kill themselves. The veteran suicide rate is more than double that of the general population (35.3 vs. 15.2 per 100,000). (Those stats and others are available here.)

Congressman Brian Mast, a Republican veteran from Florida, thinks he has an answer: Require military personnel, upon leaving military service, to take an oath not to harm themselves and to reach out to other military buddies instead:

“I [name], recognizing that my oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, has involved me and my fellow members in experiences that few persons, other than our peers, can understand, do solemnly swear (or affirm) to continue to be the keeper of my brothers-and-sisters-in-arms and protector of the United States and the Constitution; to preserve the values I have learned; to maintain my body and my mind; and to not bring harm to myself without speaking to my fellow veterans first. I take this oath freely and without purpose of evasion, so help me God.”

That’s a long oath. Let’s distill it to the words relevant to suicide:

“I … do solemnly swear … to not bring harm to myself without speaking to my fellow veterans first.”

The wording of the “Oath of Exit” looks suspiciously like a no-suicide contract, in which a person makes a promise to a therapist to not act on suicidal thoughts without first reaching out to the therapist or going to an emergency room. No-suicide contracts often do not work, and sometimes they do harm, as I explain in a previous post.

No doubt Rep. Mast has profoundly good intentions. He himself is a veteran, and he knows all too well the pain and suffering that can follow after giving service to one’s country. In 2010, he lost both his legs and a finger when a roadside bomb went off while he was serving in Kandahar.

Despite his good intentions, the (proposed) oath is problematic for other reasons besides its invocation of a promise that itself can do harm. Most importantly, it frames self-harm as a personal failure.

Congressman Mast says keeping the oath is a matter of integrity. “Integrity is more than just a word to service members, so I know if we say we’ll look out for each other and ourselves, we’ll do it,” he told Newsweek.

Taking it one step further, Brad Stewart, a spokesman for Congressman Mast, states, “The idea is that if a service member says they’re going to do something, they do it, because they have integrity and compassion for their fellow veterans.”

By extension, someone who takes an oath not to attempt suicide and who goes on to attempt suicide (supposedly) lacks not only integrity but also compassion for their fellow veterans.

Attitudes like that blame the victim. People who try to kill themselves, or who do kill themselves, are often, if not always, victims of forces beyond their control. Those forces can include mental illness, trauma, profound loss, and other sources of extreme stress.

Nobody chooses to suffer from suicidal despair.

Nobody chooses to experience the losses and injuries that lead to suicidal despair.

Some people don’t even choose to attempt suicide or die by suicide but do so anyway, victimized by thoughts and urges that overpower their rational mind.

To blame them for suicidal behavior is akin to blaming someone with OCD for continually checking whether the stove is off. Sure, to someone who doesn’t have OCD, trite advice seems obvious and true: Stop it. Just don’t do it.

It’s not that simple. The brain is a dictator. Usually it’s a benign dictator, but when a person is under extreme stress, thoughts and urges can go awry. And all too often, what the brain wants, the brain gets.

An oath to not harm oneself ignores those realities. It is like taking an oath to never get cancer or have your heart broken. Easier said than done.

Then again, what about getting help? People who get cancer or a broken heart often get help to deal with their medical problems and emotional pain. Is it too much to expect someone to reach out to fellow veterans if they are suicidal?

There are many forces that conspire to keep a suicidal person from getting help. One is a pernicious sense of hopelessness. It convinces the person that nothing can help, so why bother?

People with suicidal thoughts often have a sense of being a burden, too. Many don’t want to take any more time from others, or use any more money for their problems, than they already do.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t urge veterans to get help if suicidal thoughts emerge, or even well before then. We absolutely should. But we should do so with empathy and understanding about how hard it can be to seek help, and to get it, too.

We also should convey that getting help is good, regardless of whether another veteran provides it. This is another reason the proposed oath is troubling. The person vows to seek help from a peer in the military. Not a doctor. Not a therapist. Not a husband or wife. At least, not if those people never served in the military.

Such a myopic view of who can help veterans is counterproductive. While it’s true that many civilians have no insight or knowledge about the hellish experiences that veterans, particularly combat veterans, witnessed and endured, others still have help to offer.

By Dese’Rae Lynn Stage

The message should be to seek help, period. Whatever works, really.

So, to answer the question in the headline, no, I do not think an anti-self-harm oath would reduce veteran suicide. Instead, I fear it would increase a sense of shame, stigma, and personal failure among those who attempt suicide. Especially after taking such an oath, many veterans may be less likely to reach out to others, now that their action reveals them to have broken a promise.

This is the same problem I have with no-suicide contracts – not only that they often don’t work, but also that they discourage honesty and connection.

If an exiting service member takes an oath not to attempt suicide but then does make an attempt, the veteran might feel fear, shame, and self-recrimination about telling anyone. And they might withdraw further into themselves.

The veteran might feel bad for violating such an oath. But really, the promise itself – not the person who supposedly “violates” it – is flawed.

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If you are a veteran with suicidal thoughts, please contact the Veterans Crisis Line by calling 800-273-8255 and pressing 1. You can also text 828255 or use the confidential online chat feature at veteranscrisisline.net.

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Copyright 2017 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW. Written for Speaking of Suicide. All Rights Reserved.

Photos purchased from Fotolia.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    This is an interesting article. I am a veteran. I have been suicidal for a long, long time. For a long time I was in denial. Well even before denial, I think there was a period of unconscious processing. Anyway, I agree that contracts are useless. More so, they are emotionally burdensome, cloying, and aggravating. I refused to agree to a contract and was discharged from a therapist’s care. I think there was more going on, so maybe she just felt unable to reach me.
    Back to the article, I was somewhat surprised at the common sense ideal of exiting vets giving such an oath. But, it is a misplaced ideal. Veterans are drilled in behaviors. After they leave service, for whatever reason they are leaving, there comes a time when disciplines of enforced behaviors give way to other attitudes. There is no right or wrong in how the military is addressing it-post service. In service handling of SI is abysmal. Also, there are all kinds of articles and other media claiming the military statistics vs general population. This is not even a peas to carrots translation for comparisons. The military is not a euphemistic out of control animal – but very much a living, breathing beast of un-discovered psychological genome sequencing. Just too many variables to figure it out. Anyway, great article.

  2. Sharon Twitty says:

    Shame on you Speaking of Suicide for posting a scientifically discredited anti-suicide prevention therapeutic. Study after study has shown there’s no efficacy for preventing suicide attempts and deaths by suicide just because a suicidal individual signs a contract. Your site has previously discredited no suicide contracts.

    https://www.speakingofsuicide.com/2013/05/15/no-suicide-contracts/

    Please REMOVE this post before it inadvertently pushes someone to attempt suicide or worse, die by suicide!

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      I’m sorry, Sharon, I don’t understand your comment. In this post, I make the case that no-suicide contracts are often harmful, and I argue against them. I’m wondering if you misunderstood? Or if there’s some way I could be clearer? Please let me know.

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