The Coast Guard is focusing on two key areas of its suicide prevention strategy: destigmatizing culture and increasing access to mental health care.
The exact numbers surrounding suicide rates in the Coast Guard are unclear. Although Coast Guard personnel are considered veterans when leaving service despite being a part of the Department of Homeland Security, they are not included in the Defense Department's quarterly and annual reports on suicide in the military.
Some veteran service organizations are trying to explore some of these unknowns. A 2022 study from nonprofit veteran organization America's Warrior Partnership suggests former members of the Coast Guard are most likely to die from suicide compared to those from the military services.
Still, there exists reports of suicide in the service, resulting in Coast Guard leadership to open up about the issue in recent years.
As part of the Coast Guard’s Suicide Prevention Program, the service created a toolkit to improve preventative care and education. The toolkit features talking points for commands, a safe message guide for leadership, and a stress continuum to identify and explain stressors, manuals, training and more.
Some of these stressors include mental or emotional strain associated with an individual’s perception of their ability to handle adverse or demanding circumstances. Stressors could be any event, experience or environmental condition that causes stress in an individual. Stressors for service members include injury, inner conflict and could result in suicide.
To build upon its strategy combatting suicide, the Coast Guard is targeting increasing access and resilience.
“I advocate for our workforce to ensure that they've got access to all the tools and resources that they need to stay safe and resilient and healthy,” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan said during a Straight Talk Live Suicide Prevention broadcast Friday.
Fagan is focusing on creating a culture that eliminates stigma and normalizes the discussion around mental and behavioral health. She said the service is harnessing the voice of the younger generation — millennials and Gen Z — as an advocate for mental health awareness.
"We should be looking and leaning to the younger generations that have come into the workplace to help with eliminating the stigma and illuminating that it is okay to talk about this. It's okay to seek help. In fact, it's critical to readiness and high-functioning teams that we need individuals to be,” Fagan added. “Once somebody is courageous enough to make the phone call, we need to make sure that there is a trained professional on the other side of that of that call and we have a number of key initiatives underway.”
One of these tools is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 988, which became nationally available in July 2022, enabling callers to connect with crisis counselors. Fagan said the Veterans Crisis Line has also helped improve access to mental health services for veterans and service members seeking assistance.
“This is something that we need to continue to focus on ensuring that there is access. It takes a network,” Fagan said.
The Coast Guard also has an internal support program called Coast Guard Support, where people can call to seek help; however, Fagan said there is still room for improvement.
“I'm not particularly satisfied with the level of responsiveness of that program right now in the capacity and we're working to ensure that we've got the right vendor in place to provide support and services for Coast Guard members,” Fagan said. “This is why this conversation around access handoff and ensuring that we've got all of the right availability in place is important.”
The Coast Guard also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Defense Department to increase access to professional mental health care for medical professionals.
“It started for us as a pilot program out of Station Golden Gate,” Fagan said. "[It] started to help our crews deal with the aftermath of a suicide, for their own mental and emotional health, and it paid great dividends. We've expanded that now to ensure that our corpsmen have increased training in mental and behavioral health.”
On the technology front, the service is targeting tools like telehealth and increasing bandwidth through services such as 5G.
“Access as it pertains to technology matters. And one of the things that we hear loud and clear from our crews, and we have been investing in a bandwidth in a way that allows families to stay in touch with each other and access to some of these services,” Fagan told GovCIO Media & Research. “While there's a technology piece to this, we're also finding having a human being who's trained and can talk in health help you as you work through it is critical. ... We now are ensuring that we've got someone with some mental health behavioral health training on board.”
Looking ahead, Fagan will focus on advocating for the Coast Guard workforce, including on the Hill and collaborating with DOD and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I am committed to continuing to improve what the resources are, what access looks like and ensure that anyone that wants to serve is able to serve,” Fagan said. “I want members to be safe, valued and then have the resources available to you when you need it, should you need it, so that you can continue to help us operate this world's best Coast Guard.”