By Christianne M. Witten, Chief of Navy Chaplains Public Affairs
NORFOLK (NNS) -- More than 80 Navy chaplains and religious program specialists (RP) gathered at Naval Station Norfolk for a professional development training course (PDTC), April 27-30.
The training focused on enhancing pastoral care skills and the role of spirituality for service members and families in suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention. The Norfolk PDTC is one of 13 total training sessions the Chaplain Corps is conducting worldwide from January to July 2015.
"It cuts right to the core of the command when suicide happens," said Capt. Robert Clark Jr., commanding officer of Naval Station Norfolk, in his opening remarks to the attendees. "Chaplains play a key role in suicide prevention and particularly in postvention as advisors to the commander on the best way to care for the impacted family and Sailors in the command," he added.
Subject matters experts in suicidology and suicide intervention from the 21st Century Sailor Office and LivingWorks Education facilitated the training alongside the Naval Chaplaincy School and Center staff.
"In this training, we will focus on the unique ways we can keep our warfighters in strength by providing courageous care where it matters, when it matters on the deck plate," said Deputy Chief of Navy Chaplains Rear Adm. Brent Scott during his opening remarks. "As chaplains, we usher in the divine presence into the conversation as we speak to the issues of hopelessness and one's purpose in life," he added.
In addition to pastoral care, the three-day training underscored the invaluable advisory role of chaplains to the command triad to address command climate issues, help reduce stigma, and encourage help-seeking behavior to prevent suicide in the command.
"The link to building resilience in our people is reducing barriers and reinforcing hope. It's not a one-size- fits-all approach but about building bridges with other partners in care with whom we work as professional Navy chaplains," said Capt. Frank Foley, a Navy chaplain in the chief of chaplains' office who helped facilitate the training.
Days one and two focused on effective prevention and intervention strategies. These strategies included the importance of purposeful engagement at various transition points in a service member's career, and purposeful listening to connect the dots indicating when someone might be at risk. These risk factors include: a disrupted social network, relationship challenges, occupational or academic setbacks, and fall from glory situations.
"Chaplains are vital resources to Sailors and families, particularly when it comes to navigating life's stressors and challenges," said Steve Holton, deputy director for the 21st Century Sailor Office Suicide Prevention Branch. "The evidence-based tools we're introducing to the Fleet through these trainings will enable any shipmate, leader or professional to effectively assess a Sailor's level of risk, promote positive coping strategies, and build trust. This collaboration is another way for us to provide tools to support Every Sailor, Every Day and encourage proactive engagement before crises occur," Holton added.
Participants learned how to use evidence-based intervention tools such as the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale, a screening tool for persons at risk, and the VA safety plan. Both tools are intended to equip chaplains with the right questions to ask to help keep service members and family members safe, without compromising an individual's confidentiality.
"As we care for our people, we provide a completely confidential and safe place for those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts to explore their pain. We are able to help them build personal and spiritual resilience so they can work through their challenges and successfully re-integrate into their work environment," said Cmdr. Glenda Harrison, command chaplain for USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and training participant.
"Training of this nature is paramount to a chaplain's professional development and keeps the chaplain leaning forward to provide viable solutions to the command to address this health of force issue," Harrison added.
The training also emphasized the importance of engaging family members who are often the ones most attuned to changes in their Sailor, Marine, or Coast Guardsmen. According to Joiner's Interpersonal Theory of Suicide, these changes include signs of isolation, "thwarted belongingness" or "perceived burdensomeness."
While many family members fear disclosing information that could impact their service members' career, they also have complete confidentiality with their chaplain. In these cases, chaplains can act as an advocate to intervene and get the service member the help he or she needs.
The final day of training focused on postvention, supporting a survivor's recovery and reintegration back into the command. Participants learned how to best advise commanders in the aftermath of a suicide to be sensitive to the needs of the crew and ways to foster an environment of healing in the command and for family members as they grieve.
"One of the best practices shared which I intend to take back to my command is the importance of rehearsing my command's suicide crisis response plan," said Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Prince, the command chaplain for the Coast Guard's 5th District. "My command recently had a person die by suicide. Since that time, I have been making unit visits to engage people on ways to be resilient by proactively setting physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual goals in their personal and professional relationships," Prince added. "This training was a great encouragement as it helped validate this approach to care for my people."