Last week, Task and Purpose published an article regarding an extremely concerning bill that has already passed the House of Representatives as a part of the National Defense Authorization Act. This bill creates a voluntary “Oath of Exit” for Service Members to take upon retiring from service which states that they will not attempt or die by suicide:
“I, ________, recognizing that my oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, has involved me and my fellow members in experiences that few persons, other than our peers, can understand, do solemnly swear (or affirm) to continue to be the keeper of my brothers- and sisters-in-arms and protector of the United States and the Constitution; to preserve the values I have learned; to maintain my body and my mind; and to not bring harm to myself without speaking to my fellow veterans first. I take this oath freely and without purpose of evasion, so help me God.”
The “Oath of Exit” is a very bad idea.
Over the last decade, the suicide prevention community has attempted to obliterate what are called “no-suicide contracts” from practice. No-suicide contracts were documents that a patient signed to “promise” not to attempt/die by suicide. Not only have no-suicide contracts been found to not work, but there has been research to suggest that those who signed these contracts had higher rates of suicide. Why? What is most striking and heartbreaking is the fact that 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.
The Oath of Exit is essentially a “no-suicide contract,” but it has upped the ante. Rather than just promising a provider that the veteran won’t die by suicide, this Oath includes “brothers- and sisters-in-arms”, the United States, and the Constitution. I’m scared for those veterans who take the oath and then begin to feel like life isn’t worth living. “I promised my country that I wouldn’t try to kill myself, but I’m still having these thoughts.” Furthermore, the Oath promotes the idea that veterans only want to and should talk with other veterans about their feelings. Understanding the incredible role that fellow veterans play in each others’ lives, it’s still essential that veterans attempt to feel comfortable talking with non-veterans about feelings as well, particularly during periods of transition.
At CVN, we are continuing to build upon our best practices for suicide prevention. By incorporating safety plans, lethal means training, risk assessments, and other tools, we will continue to ensure that veterans and their families remain safe and lead the high-quality of life they so deserve.
By Caitlin Thompson, Ph.D.
CVN Vice President, Risk Management & Program Evaluation