Rear Adm. John B. Nowell, shown here in 2016, has directed Navy commanders to follow up with case managers after sailors are referred to the service's suicide prevention program. Photo by Chris Williamson/U.S. Navy
Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Navy commanders will be required to follow up on the cases of sailors who've been referred to the service's suicide prevention program, per a policy shift announced Thursday.
Sailors who attempt suicide or express suicidal thoughts are referred to the Navy's Sailor Assistance and Intercept for Life Program, also known as SAIL -- a prevention program designed to help sailors during the 90 days after a suicide-related behavior.
In a memo released earlier this week, Vice Adm. John B. Nowell, the Navy's personnel chief, described SAIL as a critical resource in bringing the service's suicide rate down -- but case managers are having a hard time contacting sailors referred to the program.
That gap in contact means just 50% of sailors referred to the program are actually getting the care they need.
So in what the Navy describes as a "subtle but important" change in the program, Nowell has directed commanding officers to instruct and verify that sailors who have experienced a recent suicide-related behavior contact the nearest SAIL case manager.
"An important part of creating a command climate that encourages help-seeking behavior is intrusive leadership, especially at the deck plate level," Nowell wrote.
It's a minor change, Nowell wrote, but one he expects will strengthen the communication link between case managers and sailors who need help.
"Although the overall suicide rate has started to move in the right direction, we must continue to keep the focus on Sailor support. We are still losing too many Sailors to suicide: 76 in 2020, 80 in 2019, and 79 in 2018," Nowell wrote.
The Navy defines "suicide-related behavior" as either a suicide attempt or an expression of suicidal thoughts or plans.
The Navy's release notes extensive research showing a "caring contacts program" to be effective in the immediate aftermath of a suicide attempt or expression of suicidal thoughts -- and SAIL is intended to fill that function for the Navy.
According to the Navy, SAIL is not a form of treatment and does not replace mental health services.
Instead, case managers stay in contact with sailors, care providers and command leadership -- and assist with care coordination and connecting sailors with other resources.
The program has helped more than 4,000 sailors, the Navy said.