The rate of suicide among US service members has been climbing since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, fueled by an inherently high-stress work environment and a nagging, outdated culture that views asking for help as a weakness. But it isn’t just soldiers going off to war who account for the climb in suicide rates. The majority of service members who attempt or complete suicide have never deployed, according to the Department of Defense.
Experts believe a combination of daily stressors, financial, legal, and relationship issues, leave soldiers more susceptible to potentially traumatic events. In fact, researchers and military leaders around the world have been trying to develop programs that maintain or build resiliency. Read about a program in South Korea and one in Texas.
Soldiers in the South Korean Army’s 25th Division guard the border with North Korea along the Demilitarized Zone. To deal with the stress of living full-time on the front lines, the group of about 15 soldiers don ballet slippers once a week to take lessons from a member of the Korean National Ballet.
Not only does ballet strengthen muscles, increase flexibility, and correct posture, it also reduces stress hormone levels in individuals. In South Korea, officials reported that the practice also strengthened the bonds between soldiers, making the unit more cohesive. Research has also shown that dancing in synchrony with others can increase pain tolerance, activating the endogenous opioid system.
Virtual Meditation Retreats
At Fort Sam Houston in Texas, Valerie Rice, a researcher at the Army Research Laboratory’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate, is combining guided mindfulness meditation with a virtual world to help soldiers cope with stress wherever they are.
In Rice’s ongoing study, participants create avatars and enter a virtual world where they meet up with other participants and a trainer in a virtual gazebo to learn mindfulness-based stress-reduction techniques. Results suggest that the training eases stress, anxiety, and pain.