Report on Ft. Wainwright suicides suggests stigma is hampering improvements

 Photo from Fort Wainwright Public Affairs
Photo from Fort Wainwright Public Affairs (KTUU)
Published: Oct. 29, 2019 at 11:38 AM AKDT
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A report released by a behavioral health team that examining the spike in suicide deaths since 2018 on Fort Wainwright suggests that stigma against seeking mental health treatment is the primary barrier to solving the problem.

A behavioral health epidemiological consultation, or EPICON, was requested after Congressman Don Young sent a letter to the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army and Commanding General, U.S. Army Medical Command requesting a team of medical professionals to be sent to Fort Wainwright to examine the situation on the ground concerning the reported suicides.

Although this report was not initially made public, a copy of the executive summary was shared with KTVF.

Since the spring of 2018, there have been several deaths of military members in the Interior of Alaska. The community and family members have been trying to get answers as to why it seems that a higher number of Soldiers and Airmen are taking their own lives. KTVF examined deaths that were not attributed to a training incident, car accident, or other known cause.

Fort Wainwright has seen nine deaths of this manner since May of 2018:

  • May 2018 – 23-year-old, manner of death: Confirmed suicide by Army Criminal Investigation Command
  • September 2018 – 22-year-old, manner of death: Confirmed suicide by Army Criminal Investigation Command
  • October 2018 – 21-year-old, manner of death: still under investigation, not determined whether it was accidental or intentional
  • January 2019 – 25-year-old, manner of death: still under investigation, not determined whether it was accidental or intentional
  • January 2019 –24-year-old, serious initial incident report describes the manner of death consistent with suicide
  • February 2019 – 33-year-old, manner of death: Confirmed suicide by Army Criminal Investigation Command
  • June 2019 – 20-year-old, manner of death: still under investigation, not determined whether it was accidental or intentional
  • August 2019 – 22-year-old, manner of death: Suicide, based on Fairbanks Police Department Incident/Investigation report
  • September 2019 – 33-year-old, manner of death: still under investigation

Since most of the cases are still under investigation, those are not included in the number of deaths by suicide. The EPICON report mentions 11 suicides that were identified from January 2014 to March 2019 and of those 11 suicides, the report mentions that five of the deaths occurred between May of 2018 to March of 2019.

Through our reporting, there has been an inconsistency in the number of suicides that Fort Wainwright and U.S. Army Alaska Officials have been releasing.

On January 25, 2019, we received information through a Freedom of Information Act, of the number of suicides on Fort Wainwright per year since 2001. From 2001-2015, there was from zero to two deaths by suicide a year. In 2016, there were three, in 2017 there were zero, in 2018 there were three, and as of January 25, they reported one death by suicide in 2019.

In the executive summary of the ‘Assessment of Behavioral and Social Health Outcomes at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, March-September 2019’.

The report outlines that the EPICON team reviewed clinical records, analyzed more than 800 Serious Incident Reports, conducted 45 focus groups with Soldiers and 1 focus group with family members, interviewed 30 key leader groups and 4 command teams, analyzed population-level BH care encounters, surveyed more than 4,000 Soldiers, and reviewed 43 U.S. Army Alaska, Garrison, and U.S. Army Medical Department Activity Command policies.

The report states “to date, findings from the [behvaioral health team] have not pinpointed definitive reasons for why Soldiers die by suicide. However, they can identify broad risk and protective factors associated with adverse behavioral and social health outcomes.”

One of the topics Soldiers talked about in the survey was perceived barriers to accessing behavioral healthcare.

“The most common reasons for not seeking [behavioral health] care were related to stigma. Soldiers felt that leaders would treat them differently (22%), that they would be seen as weak (21%), that seeking [behavioral health] care would harm their career (21%), and that coworkers would have less confidence in them (20%). Other reasons included receiving time off for the visit (21%) and worrying that the visit would not remain confidential (18%),” stated in the report.

Roughly one-third (34%) of soldiers reported poor sleep quality in the week prior to taking the survey and one-third (34%) of soldiers reported that in the past year they were worried food would run out before they got money to buy more, or the food they bought did not last and they did not have money to get more.

The findings and recommendations were presented in range from short-term to long-term.

The report concludes that the problems soldiers at Fort Wainwright face are consistent with previous EPICONs, but that the additional challenges of the Arctic environment may compound problems, creating additional stress.

Sen. Scott Kawasaki represents the district that Fort Wainwright is in, as well as serving on the Joint Armed Services Committee, and said his office has been working on this issue for the past year and are relieved that they were able to review the executive summary of the report.

“The executive summary was a little bit vague as far as some of the causes and some of the reasons but certainly there is an issue at Wainwright and within Alaska, that needs to be addressed when it comes to suicides on our military bases,” said Kawasaki.

He says they are still waiting on the full report but hope it is made available to the public.

“A document of this nature, which discusses soldiers and some of the critical issues about why suicide is being committed on our bases is important for the public,” said Kawasaki.

With the perceived increase in deaths on Fort Wainwright, many family members of soldiers currently stationed at Fort Wainwright have been communicating with each other to see if there is anything they can do. One mother said she is in Facebook groups with other parents where they discuss news of Fort Wainwright, including the deaths by suicide that have been occurring on post.

“I didn’t really know anything about Fort Wainwright before my son was sent there, and then ya know, joining these (Facebook) groups, with other moms, parents, whatever, and then I see these suicides and the suicide rates and the number of people just from since he’s been there, and I was shocked,” said Adkins.

Kawasaki says there are some basic recommendations laid out in the executive summary that should happen immediately.

“Very basic things like ensuring R&R, making sure folks have access to healthcare, mental health issues, those types of things, making sure that folks have something as simple as blind curtains so that when they’re here during the summer in 24 hour sunlight, that they don’t have to be disturbed by the sunlight,” said Kawasaki.

“I get it: they’re Soldiers, I get that. However they’ve got to recognize when somebody is really asking for help, and without making them feel badly about asking for help,” said Adkins.

“I certainly hope that they look at the report as a way to sort of stop the trend that we’ve seen and that’s increased suicide within our military bases,” said Kawasaki.

U.S. Army Alaska Media Relations Chief, John Pennell, says that the results of the EPICON report show them that they were correct for requesting a team to come to Fort Wainwright, “to look into quality of life issues or what we can do moving forward to make things better for Soldiers and families who are stationed at Fort Wainwright and across Alaska as well.”

Pennell says that Commanding General Major General Peter Andrysiak held a town hall with Soldiers and their families in October to talk about quality of life issues on base and they will be holding another town hall on November 5 at 6 p.m. with more details to come.

After trying to set up an interview with Andrysiak for months, we were not able to get an interview. However, Pennell continued to comment saying that they were already working on implementing some of the recommendations from the EPICON report.

“A lot of the recommendations are items that we can address immediately, whether it be something as simple as making sure that we offer Soldiers more time with their families, we can put blackout curtains in the barracks and in housing so that the long summer daylight doesn’t keep people from sleeping. Sleeping disorders were identified as one of the major factors for Soldiers and their families,” said Pennell.

He said they are also working to have 24-hour access for one of the gymnasiums, and looking at other changes they can make to address the recommendations from the EPICON report.

This article was modified for brevity by KTUU. Copyright 2019 KTVF. All rights reserved.