State Dept’s Suicide Prevention Resources — A Topic So Secret No One Wants to Talk About It

—By Domani Spero

This blog has been running almost uninterrupted for years now.  We have heard just about everything there is to hear about the worldwide available universe. While we don’t get shocked very often anymore, there are days when running this blog becomes heavy on one’s soul.

In the last few months we have heard allegations of sexual harassment, workplace bullying and an attempted suicide. All these have two things in common. One, the alleged perpetrators were senior officials in the Foreign Service who appeared able to skirt accountability.  And two, the informers all prefer to remain anonymous for personal and professional reasons.

The allegations are troubling and disturbing given how often we’ve seen officers get recycled to other posts when trouble comes calling.  A person who harasses one or more person at Post A is probably a serial harasser who will not stop when you move him to Post B at a different geographical location.  A person who routinely bullies subordinates probably think he/she is doing hands-on management and do not have the self-awareness to recognize his/her negative impact at post.  He or she rotates to the next post and do the same thing all over again to miserable consequences.   Yes, there are rules, but those apparently are quite useless when people look the other way.

Below is an excerpt from one of our correspondents:

“How many Foreign Service Officers have attempted suicide, and named [Senior FSO X] as the reason?  I personally know of at least one officer who did this.”

“[T]his attempt, PRECISELY BECAUSE of” Senior FSO X’s  “treatment/management of that officer.”

“Why is there only accountability for those who are new in their career, or who do not have the unwavering support of a career ambassador?”

The note was sent anonymously but there was nothing anonymous about the pain that leapt across the screen.  It kept me awake for days.  What happens when one feels suicidal while in an overseas posting?

Suicide is not unheard of in the Foreign Service.  In 2007, Colonel Thomas Mooney who was then with US Embassy Nicosia went missing, and after four days was found with reportedly self-inflicted wound.  In May 2012, Caribbean news reported as “apparent suicide” the death of RSO George Gaines of the US Embassy in Barbados.

Two cases too many.  What we don’t know is how many suicide attempts have occurred behind the embassy walls.  We have so far been unable to confirm that an FSO working for Senior FSO X attempted suicide.  According to save.org, there are an estimated 8 to 25 attempted suicides to 1 completion.  That’s an estimate for the general population, what is it in the foreign service?  When we asked around, our question was answered with another question by a blog pal –

What FSO is going to risk losing their security clearance by going to MED and saying they are thinking about suicide?” 

We know of one documented case of an attempted suicide:  an FS employee accused of raping his maid in Bangkok, Thailand.  The employee reportedly maintained the sex was consensual but aggressive interrogation techniques by DS agents allegedly drove this employee to jump off a hotel window.

[A]fter “being told he would end up in a Thai prison, his wife would lose her job and his children would be pulled out of school, [the man] attempted suicide by jumping out of the 16th-story window at a hotel in Bangkok … The man was flown back to Washington for in-patient psychiatric care, where the agents continued to harass him, the union charged. The rape charges were ultimately dropped.

Psychology Today explains that “the thought of suicide most often occurs when a person feels they have run out of solutions to problems that seem inescapable, intolerably painful, and never-ending.”

“Of all motivations for suicide, the two found to be universal in all participants were hopelessness and overwhelming emotional pain.”

We wrote to the State Dep’t’s Family Liaison Office (FLO)  inquiring what resources or material on suicide prevention are available to FS employees and spouses.

FLO’s response: “Please direct them to the Employee Consultation Service (ECS) here is a link to their website http://www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/c21952.htm   They provide in-person and phone counseling.”

We wrote to the Employee Consultation Service at MEDECS@state.gov, with the same inquiry and received a response from one Pollenetta P. Douglas: “Good morning, Are you or your family member employed by the State Department?”

After being informed that we are writing about suicide prevention resources available to employees and family members, we never heard from Ms. Douglas again. You’d think that they would want that information widely disseminated.  But no, apparently, suicide prevention is a topic so secret no one wants to talk about it.

The State Department does have a “Do You Need Help?” page that says:

If you are feeling suicidal or homicidal, it’s important that you let someone know. You should seek help immediately by calling 911 or going to the closest emergency room.

It did not say what an FS employee/family member should do if one is in a foreign country where there is no 911 to call or no ER.  Perhaps that’s because the text of that web page is cribbed from DOD’s afterdeployment.org without attribution.

If you or somebody you know needs help, please –

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If you have thoughts of suicide, these options are available to you (via save.org):

  • Dial: 911
  • Dial: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Check yourself into the emergency room
  • Call your local crisis agency
  • Tell someone who can help you find help immediately.
  • Stay away from things that might hurt you.
  • Most people can be treated with a combination of antidepressant medication and psychotherapy.

For FS folks overseas, this can get even more complicated. In some places, there is no 911.  In most cases, for language, logistical or other reasons, one may require the help of the mission’s MED or Health Unit to visit the ER.  Which means the incident could be reported up the embassy’s chain of command.  And certainly if one is at a post with very few foreigners, showing up at an Emergency  Room would probably be big news.  A medical evacuation is always an option but realistically, despite what officials say, there are ongoing concerns about security clearance and mental health issues, not to mention the stigma for people who have a mental health condition. That fact alone is enough to preclude people who needs help from asking for it.

Given the expanding number of people who served/are serving in the war zones or in unaccompanied, dangerous assignments, we suspect that there is a good number of people suffering quietly with PTSD, depression and other related issues.  Secretary Kerry needs to pay attention to this.  Asking for help while overseas is particularly complicated.  Secretary Kerry can make a difference by ensuring that people who needs help can get it without fear of jeopardizing their security clearance or their jobs. And he needs to do something about State’s recycle program.

In the meantime, we hope the following is helpful:

If you’re overseas and need help but do not want to call the ECS, please call the Military Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255 and Press 1), online chat or text (838255). In Europe call 00800 1273 8255 or DSN 118*. This is available for veterans, active duty/reserved service members, and family members and friends of service members. We recently used the online chat and we’re told that help is available even if you’re in the Foreign Service.  You do not have to give your name or other personal information. See the FAQs here.

Below are some common misconceptions about suicide (via save.org):

“People who talk about suicide won’t really do it.”

Not True. Almost everyone who commits or attempts suicide has given some clue or warning. Do not ignore suicide threats. Statements like “you’ll be sorry when I’m dead,” “I can’t see any way out,” — no matter how casually or jokingly said, may indicate serious suicidal feelings.

“Anyone who tries to kill him/herself must be crazy.”

Not True. Most suicidal people are not psychotic or insane. They may be upset, grief-stricken, depressed or despairing. Extreme distress and emotional pain are always signs of mental illness but are not signs of psychosis.

“If a person is determined to kill him/herself, nothing is going to stop him/her.”

Not True. Even the most severely depressed person has mixed feelings about death, and most waiver until the very last moment between wanting to live and wanting to end their pain. Most suicidal people do not want to die; they want the pain to stop. The impulse to end it all, however overpowering, does not last forever.

“People who commit suicide are people who were unwilling to seek help.”

Not True. Studies of adult suicide victims have shown that more then half had sought medical help within six month before their deaths and a majority had seen a medical professional within 1 month of their death.

“Talking about suicide may give someone the idea.”

Not True. You don’t give a suicidal person ideas by talking about suicide. The opposite is true — bringing up the subject of suicide and discussing it openly is one of the most helpful things you can do.

If you or somebody you know is contemplating suicide, please call the numbers above or contact one of these hotlines before you do anything else.

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Filed under Americans Abroad, Foreign Service, FSOs, Hall of Shame, Leadership and Management, MED, Mental Health, Realities of the FS, State Department

2 responses to “State Dept’s Suicide Prevention Resources — A Topic So Secret No One Wants to Talk About It

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