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Learning to Detect the Enemy Within

The Nation | COLUMN ONE

The Army turns to a computer program emulating the pain of a suicidal GI. Will this training tool help avert real-life tragedies?

September 17, 2003|Thomas Curwen | Times Staff Writer

"Do you have shells for any of your guns?"

"Bought some shells last weekend. I hid 'em in the lockbox. Makes me feel better knowin' they're there."

Billy Parker's world is coming apart, one question at a time. His life and his problems are fictitious, but he is modeled after real soldiers in trouble: He wants to kill himself.

He has a plan all worked out, and he'll sit and talk about it onscreen with anyone who has a computer. Conversations last from 15 to 45 minutes. They are a wild, sad ride through a mental maze of desperation and hopelessness.

Billy is on CD-ROM. The three-disk set, created by the U.S. Army, Johns Hopkins University and a Canadian company that specializes in suicide prevention training, was distributed this summer to Army bases here and abroad. It is both technologically sophisticated and surprisingly radical in its assumptions about how to teach ways to determine the seriousness of suicidal behavior.

The program presents Billy's problems, like those of real people, as unpredictable. He can be depressed, teetering on the edge of suicide, far removed from it, or somewhere in between. But the interplay of risk and of the complex details of his life makes the program more advanced than other interactive software.

As technology, the CDs are a human-less approach to suicide, a decidedly human problem. This makes them both disconcerting and promising. Such training is typically done in group settings, through one-on-one role-playing. The CDs, however, are less encumbering. They are available to anyone with a laptop.

Given to trainees at the end of a two-day suicide prevention course, they enable officers and enlisted persons to practice at their convenience what they have learned.

The Army hopes the program will make talking about depression and suicide less taboo so more soldiers can be helped when the pressures of their jobs overwhelm them.

If it works, it could have implications for suicide prevention everywhere.

A Life in 2 Gigabytes

"How have you been feeling?"

"I don't know. Nothing is going right. Nothing happens the way I want. I keep getting into arguments with everyone. It's just I'm so mad all the time. I wanted more from life. Something better.... "

Double-click on a question, or read it aloud into voice-recognition software, and suddenly Billy Parker fills the computer screen. Two gigabytes on a hard drive -- 802 questions and 1,534 answers -- contain the story of his invented life.

He was born in 1979 and grew up in a small Kentucky town. His dad couldn't hold a job, drank a lot and was divorced from Billy's mother -- then disappeared. Billy was in middle school when it happened.

His mother is a little eccentric. She likes Halloween stories year-round and repaints the kitchen every summer. But nothing beats her pecan pies. When he was younger, Billy and one of her boyfriends built what she called a pie safe, out of wood and tin, to keep them in.

Billy is especially close to Cindy, his kid sister. At one time, he was close to an uncle, who died unexpectedly young. Some said it was a heart attack, but Billy knows the truth: His uncle shot himself.

Earnest and likable, Billy wears his battle-dress uniform on the screen. He has short hair, a sallow complexion and a 5 o'clock shadow.

He is easygoing -- until he thinks about his job, his marriage or his future.

Then he shrugs, swallows hard and looks at the floor.

He wants children, but Teresa, his wife, doesn't. She seems more interested in taking in stray cats. She also has a new job at the mall and has started yoga with a girlfriend.

Feeling estranged, Billy rides his motorcycle and throws himself into a part-time job at a garage in town. He just finished fixing up an old Mustang and is particularly proud of it.

Lately, however, he mainly just sits around and watches TV or listens to music.

Nothing seems to make sense anymore.

There's a stream near his trailer park. He likes it because it's so peaceful. No one would hear his gun down there, and Teresa is going away this weekend.

'You Don't Get It'

"It would be a tragedy if you killed yourself. Your whole life is ahead of you.... "

"Yeah, a life full of pain. You don't get it. Have you been listening to me?"

More than 30,000 people kill themselves in the United States annually -- nearly twice the homicide rate. Ruling out illnesses, suicide is the second- leading cause of death after accidents.

More distressingly, for every suicide there are 25 attempts.

In the Army, the numbers are similar. One out of 10,000 soldiers commits suicide, and there are up to 100 interventions a day.

As the largest branch of the military, with nearly 480,000 soldiers, the Army is a discrete and heterogeneous population, which makes it an ideal environment in which to study the effectiveness of prevention programs.

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