The group Mental Health America today called on President Obama to reverse an unwritten policy against sending presidential letters of condolence to families of soldiers who commit suicide.
“The lack of acknowledgment and condolence from the President can leave these families with an emotional vacuum and a feeling that somehow their sacrifices may not have been as great as others who died while in the military,” a resolution from the organization says.
The White House has been reviewing the policy, which dates to the Clinton administration.
“Regardless of what happens, nothing lessens the amazing contribution and sacrifice that’s made. I think that’s what the president would … tell that family and would tell … other families,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said last month.
What’s the big deal? Some say suicide should be a stigma. As recently as 1974, suicide was a crime in eight states. Psychiatrist Paul Steinberg, a former director of the counseling and psychiatric service at Georgetown University, says a presidential letter runs the risk of “glorifying” suicide.
The hard truth is that any possible glorification of suicide — even reports of suicide — make the taking of one’s life a more viable option. If suicide appears to be a more reasonable way of handling life’s stresses than seeking help, then suicide rates increase.
Certainly, a presidential condolence letter after one’s death is not exactly the same encouragement for suicide as the purported Muslim promise of a gift of 72 virgins after death. But the increasing number of suicides in the military suggests that we need to find the right balance between concern for the spouses, children and parents left behind, and any efforts to prevent subsequent suicides in the military.
Last month, the Navy reported one of every 35 sailors attempts suicide, the highest rate of any military branch.