Spiritual Readiness - Bryan wb.jpg

Fort Drum community members gathered at the Commons on Feb. 23 for a Spiritual Readiness Breakfast hosted by the 10th Mountain Division (LI) Chaplains Section. The theme of the event was “Creating a Purpose Driven Culture,” with Dr. Craig J. Bryan, a board-certified clinical psychologist and Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, as guest speaker. (Photo by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)

Spiritual Readiness Breakfast speaker presents different approach to suicide prevention

 Mike Strasser

Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Feb. 23, 2022) – A leading expert on suicide prevention spoke on the theme “Creating a Purpose Driven Culture” during a Spiritual Readiness Breakfast on Feb. 23 at the Commons, hosted by 10th Mountain Division (LI) Chaplains Section.

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Matthew Atkins, 10th Mountain Division (LI) chaplain, said that discussions about suicide prevention in the military often focus on the individual and not the surrounding environment that can be an influencing factor.

“What we can do is continue to create a culture that really values and sustains life, and makes it worth living and purposeful for people,” he said.

Elaborating on the theme of culture change was Dr. Craig J. Bryan, a board-certified clinical psychologist and Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

A U.S. Air Force veteran, Bryan deployed to Iraq in 2009 and served as director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic at the Air Force Theater Hospital.

“Before I deployed to Iraq, I had a professional interest in trauma and suicide prevention,” he said. “But it was while deployed where the reality of these issues hit me in the face fairly hard.”

He recalled one particular week where he saw four service members side-by-side in the Intensive Care Unit, each on life support from self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

“For me, this was really the first time I could see the brutality and violence of suicide,” Bryan said. “I think, for me, it was a key defining moment where I thought, ‘We are really doing something wrong.’”

After returning from Iraq, Bryan focused his post-military career on gaining a deeper, research-based understanding of suicide in the military.

He said that he spent time looking outside the field of psychology and studied other areas of injury prevention. He examined how traffic fatality prevention has progressively declined over a span of decades while suicide fatalities went the opposite direction.

“What’s fascinating about looking at traffic fatality is that we really don’t focus that much on drivers,” Bryan said.

He said that to get after solutions, people in that field stopped asking why people die in car crashes and began asking how people die.

Bryan said that traffic fatalities declined not because people became safer drivers, but because the environment around the driver changed.

Safety features on vehicles, rumble strips on highways that prevent drifting, and speed bumps on the road are contributing factors to decreased fatalities. Bryan said that a similar “change the environment” model can be applied to suicide prevention, and that requires a team approach.

While conducting squad-level research on one installation, he found that service members connected their own well-being with a shared sense of purpose and responsibility for one another. They felt protected and happier despite having high-stress jobs.

“Accountability is big – your duty to others,” he said. “There is also extensive research on gratitude. Your expressions of gratitude are incredibly impactful.”

Bryan said that one assignment he gave service members in post-traumatic stress treatment was to express appreciation to at least three people in a day, and then accept all gestures of appreciation from others.

“Because if you don’t respond, you invalidate that person’s appreciation,” he said.

He said research shows that performing simple acts of kindness do more to improve one’s well-being than the recipient of that act. The challenge is finding a balance between self-care and care for others.

“Do favors for one another – help each other out,” Bryan said. “I would argue that the little things you do actually matter more.”

He added that an environment that fosters mutual respect is also important.

“We had done research years ago on the military where we looked at social support,” Bryan said. “And what we found most important among service members is social support where people felt valued and respected, and they also perceived there were people around them that they respect.”

Bryan said that there are a lot of health care services and resources for people to get support when in crisis.

“It’s really important, but it is one piece of the puzzle. It’s not the entire puzzle,” he said. “What I really think matters is creating lives worth living. Because if we want to provide an alternative to suicide – in that moment when someone is thinking whether they really want to die – we have to make the alternative worthwhile. We can influence that dynamic every single day with these little things to create a purpose-driven life in an environment with high well-being and satisfaction.”

Maj. Gen. Milford H. Beagle Jr., 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum commander, said that it was a privilege to hear Bryan’s insight and experience.

“There’s probably no one in this room who has thought more about suicide prevention than the person standing here,” Beagle said. “We really appreciate you putting that much thought into the work you do and for sharing that with us today.”

Beagle warned that service members often have a bias toward action and an inclination to find solutions and fix problems immediately.

“But we have to get better at understanding,” he said. “Understand the problem before you jump into action. This is a call to all of us to rethink and understand the problem that we may not understand as well as we thought we did.”