Panetta Talks Suicide Prevention, Mental Fitness

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta addressed the DOD and Department of Veterans Affairs Annual Suicide Prevention Conference (in June, though recently re-posted here), describing to the audience his four-point vision for the DoD to become a “game-changing innovator in the field of suicide prevention.”

Panetta’s vision includes vigilance on the part of leaders, improving behavioral healthcare, elevation of “mental fitness,” and increased research on suicide.

What was potentially most notable was what the Secretary didn’t say:  He never mentioned Chaplains, religion, faith, or “spiritual fitness,” despite the historical understanding (continuing today) that a person’s spiritual fortitude plays a strong role in his resilience.

On the other hand, this is what he did say:

A third pillar of suicide prevention is better equipping service members with training and coping skills that they need to avoid or bounce back from stress…We’ve got to elevate mental fitness to the same level of importance that DoD has always placed on physical fitness.

Remember the US Army’s “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness?”  It covered 5 categories:  Physical, Emotional, Social, Family, and Spiritual.  “Mental” fitness was not among them.  “Spiritual fitness,” however, was described as

One’s purpose, core values, beliefs, identity, and life vision. These elements, which define the essence of a person, enable one to build inner strength, make meaning of experiences, behave ethically, persevere through challenges, and be resilient when faced with adversity

That sounds an awful lot like what Secretary Panetta was saying.

So is this a “re-branding” of spiritual fitness to “mental” fitness?  Is it simply semantics?  That’s difficult to say.  It is unlikely the military will abandon its comprehensive view (which it currently continues to advocate), though it could theoretically rename it, as unwieldy as that might be.

Still, it is notable the Secretary of Defense detailed a strategic vision of being an “innovator” in suicide prevention — and never once mentioned anything about faith, despite its importance not only to the subject, but also to the vast majority of the Department he leads.