Hartford HealthCare symposium puts focus on preventing military suicides
Norwich ― Combat medic John Harrington faced a third deployment with his Connecticut Army National Guard unit when his wife Tessa finally banished him from the family home in January, telling him not to return until he was sober.
He never came back, dying by suicide.
Tessa, mother of the Harringtons’ two children and living in Ledyard, described her husband’s rapid descent into alcoholism and her inability to reach him during Friday’s Hartford HealthCare’s Military Mental Health Symposium at its East Region Support Office at 11 Stott Ave.
Some 50 mental health providers and military representatives attended the event in person and dozens more participated via Zoom. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., spoke at the end of the hourslong session.
“Telling my story is the best thing I’ve ever done,” said Harrington, a paramedic, a student and a mental health advocate who hosts “Died By Suicide,” a podcast. She’s also founded a foundation in her husband’s memory to help military families and first responders.
After her husband’s death, Harrington said she struggled with anxiety and depression, “drowning in ‘what ifs.’ ”
“I’m working through it, sharing my struggles,” she said. “I encourage people (dealing with grief) to take that first step, to tell someone you’re struggling. And see professionals.”
Her advice was met with a standing ovation.
Blumenthal extolled the importance of advocacy in fighting suicide in the military, saying mental health issues must be kept before the public despite their unpleasantness.
“We can’t be in denial,” he said. “Mental instability is not a moral failing, not a sign of weakness. The military, though it’s gotten more enlightened, still has an ethos of ‘I can do it, I don’t need help.’ … But stigma still surrounds it (mental health issues).”
Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, recalled that he and the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., collaborated on the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans bill, which the Senate approved unanimously in 2015. The measure provided more mental health resources for veterans but more funding is desperately needed, Blumenthal said.
Hunt, a 28-year-old Marine, died by suicide in 2011 after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Two years later, another former Marine, Justin Eldridge of Waterford, died by suicide after battling PTSD.
Tom King, vice president of operations for Natchaug Hospital in Mansfield, which organized Friday’s symposium, said he hopes to make it an annual event. The goal, he said, is to stoke a conversation among mental health providers, the military and their families.
Help is available 24/7 for anyone with suicidal thoughts. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 988 or text HOME to 741741. Lean more about suicide prevention at www.preventsuicidect.org.
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