Will an Anti-Suicide Oath do More Harm than Good?


By Debbie Gregory.

Congressman Brian Mast (R-FL) served in Afghanistan, and has been championing an idea to deter veteran suicides.

The “Oath of Exit” passed the U.S. House of Representatives on July 14th as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. Part of the pledge would also commit troops who are being discharged to “continue to be the keeper of my brothers- and sisters-in-arms” in addition to the United States and the Constitution.

“Nearly every week I hear from a veteran who is thinking about taking their own life; maybe walking into their garage, turning on their car and never coming out,” Mast said on the House floor. “The idea for this came from friends of mine who had struggled with suicidal thoughts leaving the military. People who have actually been there on the edge.”

But some suicide prevention experts believe the plan is likely to do the opposite.

Mast, who lost both of his legs in 2010 from a roadside bomb explosion in Kandahar, said servicemembers are known for honoring their commitments. He contends that if they commit to contacting fellow veterans before harming themselves, they’d do it.

Some experts believe it could backfire.

When struggling with suicidal thoughts, veterans who sign the commitment could feel an increased sense of shame and guilt, explained Craig Bryan, a psychologist and executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah

The former director of suicide prevention programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Caitlin Thompson, agreed with Bryan. Suicide prevention experts have been discouraging these types of contracts for the past 10 years, according to Thompson.

“It isn’t just that it didn’t work. It actually had the opposite effect,” said Thompson, who is now a vice president of Cohen Veterans Network. “A patient who signed a contract may feel guilty about talking about any further thoughts of suicide.  ‘I signed this contract saying that I wouldn’t attempt suicide, but I can’t get these thoughts out of my head.  Still, I promised my doctor and my family that I wouldn’t do it, so I don’t want to tell them about these thoughts.’  This way of thinking, particularly with someone who feels so vulnerable anyway, can easily spiral down a dark path and create further isolation and hopelessness – two of the hallmark risk factors for suicide.”

“A community of clinicians and researchers have continued to try to get the word out that this doesn’t work,” Thompson added.